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  • Tall Ships America

590 Miles of Great Lakes Schooning

By James

From Buffalo to Cleveland, Cleveland to Bay City. The time I had to sail on Denis Sullivan exceeded all hopes.

I got my first impression of the ship in Toronto and then I joined her crew in Buffalo. Of said impression, I didn’t have the highest expectations. Built like a barge, she was kind of blunt in hull shape, with not much color and shrouds more loose than I was used to. Her cargo schooner heritage definitely shone through. Everything changed on July 8th when we cast off lines and sailed off the Buffalo dock. I could tell from those first minutes that she would surprise me.

Unlike some ships in the fleet, Denis Sullivan was built with cargo in mind, not speed, and her hull shape reflects that lineage, sacrificing the sleek lines and light build of fishing schooners in favor of a stockier hull, intended to maximize interior capacity. Denis Sullivan may be beefy but, oh, does she want to sail… and Captain Tiff knows how to sail her.

It’s not very often that you get to sail off the dock with any ship, but it looks good and feels damn salty. The conditions were just right that afternoon; we just went for it and didn’t stop sailing until we got to Cleveland, OH, the better part of four days later. The combination of fine sailing weather, a relaxed watch system, and exceptional shipmates made my experience on Sullivan a tough card to beat for the rest of the summer. From the moment we set sail, I was a crew member and my shipmates treated me like one of their own. It was nice to be a full crew of fourteen adults, to sail and get comfortable with each other. The weather was always fantastic while I was on watch, and I saw some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. All in all, this passage was some of the most fun I’ve had sailing in months.

Arriving in Cleveland brought the hustle & bustle of tourists and typical festival work. I couldn’t wait to get out and sail again. However, every journey presents its own challenges. This time, the ship was stuffed full of 20+ students from Sandusky High School, almost all of whom had never been on a boat before. I knew it would be a challenge to help ease them into it, and I admit it was odd transitioning into a position as the trainer, not the trainee. Sure, there have been times that I have taught other trainees, but it’s different when you are looked to as a leader.

The race to Pelee Passage from Cleveland made for some good sailing, but as the wind shifted more and more over the stern, Sullivan began to fall behind. A Great Lakes cargo schooner just can’t compete downwind with square riggers. The race was fun while it lasted but soon after crossing the finish line, the wind began to die, and we were forced to motor the rest of the way to the Detroit River. But before the wind died for good, we did get a brief squall. What fun! The wind gusted up suddenly to 20 knots or more, and it became a race to don our foulies and be back on deck, ready for whatever would come. Then the rain came, a brief if violent deluge that had me huddled on the quarterdeck, back facing to weather, as the zipper on my raincoat had rusted open. The whole event lasted maybe 45 minutes at the most, but the intensity of the weather had the students unsettled.

From then on it was a motorboat ride most of the way to Bay City, with occasional sail-drifting in favorable yet light air to afford a quiet nights rest with no running engine. My two favorite parts of this transit were taking the helm to steer us up the St. Clair River and getting to work on rigging a new net in Sullivan’s headrig. The work I did involved seizing together individual ropes to form a crosshatch patterned net which can support the weight of a person. Then we would cut away sections of the original net. That project, led by Sr. Deckhand Noah, kept us occupied all the way to Bay City.