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All Hands on Deck for Voyage Into State's Past

February 15, 1987|PATRICK MOTT

\o7 It doesn't take much more than an hour, your weight shifting to the roll of the ship and your eyes straining to see past the dim running lights into the black night, before your imagination begins to drift.

It slips back nearly 140 years, to the voyages along the same coast when other eyes stared out from the bow of a ship just like this one, when other ears heard the lines groan in the night and other, harder faces felt the chill when the dew fell from the waving sails overhead.

How dark it is, you think, and how lonely. The loudest sound at 4 a.m. is the glassy water lapping against the wooden hull. And in the middle of the night at sea there is no wind to fill the sails, nothing to move the ship.

Inevitably, you wonder, what was it like on ships like this in the 1850s, when sailors had to stand solitary, monotonous bow watches like this for nine months around Cape Horn and up the California coast.

\f7 Rocco Cappeto had barely set foot on board a boat in the last three years. He's an inexperienced sailor, a marine electronics representative from Los Angeles who does his business almost exclusively on land.

But on one recent hazy morning in Dana Point Harbor, Cappeto felt the same hardwood deck beneath his feet as the legendary clipper sailors of the last century. He heard the same shouts of command, felt the strain of the same lines, balanced to the same exhilarating pitch and roll of the heavy wooden hull.

A Sail Back in Time

For the next three days and two nights, Cappeto and seven other shipboard companions were going to be transported back in time, to the days of the California clippers, the swift brigantines, the topsail schooners that slid through the coastal waters during the Gold Rush.

He was about to become a deep-water sailor on one of the state's most famous tall ships.

"For me this is day two of sailing in three years," Cappeto said, "but I think this is absolutely beautiful. And you learn much faster when you're on the job. . . . Everything here has a special name and a purpose, which I think is kind of neat."

That ship, the Californian, is a majestic presence in Dana Point Harbor--sleek and tall, a stylistic anachronism that was launched less than three years ago. Though it is owned by the nonprofit Nautical Heritage Society, a maritime research and education organization, which operates a museum in Dana Point, the topsail schooner is no museum piece. It was built for the open sea.

The construction of the 145-foot schooner was first proposed by the society's founder, Steve Christman.He suggested such a ship could be used as a sail training vessel for high school and college students as well as act as a symbol of California's nautical heritage.

Financed with private funds, the Californian cost nearly $1.5 million to build and costs about $360,000 per year to operate, Christman said. A full-time salaried crew of eight living aboard the vessel maintains and sails it year-round. It can carry as many as 30 passengers on overnight voyages.

Sea Cadets

Most of its cruises involve students--called Sea Cadets by the society--and last 11 days, during which the ship calls at ports along the California coast. The cadets pay $700 for the cruise, with some subsidized by scholarships given by the society or by private donations.

"We're not just teaching them to sail," Christman said, "although that is a big part of it. The vessel is a vehicle for teaching earth science as well as seamanship. Also, we stress teamwork and responsibility. A lot of the cadets find that they push their shore-side limits of what they think they can do."

In recent months, however, many adults who had heard of the Californian began to feel left out, Christman said. They asked, why should the kids have all the fun.

"There was quite a popular demand for a similar sailing program for adults," Christman said. "Some people got rather vocal about it."

So in the fall the society instituted a series of occasional cruises for adults, both day sails and three-day voyages along the coast. For $125 per day, adults (referred to as "guests" by the crew) who want to feel the salt spray from the deck of a schooner and feel the bite of heavy lines in their hands can obtain a bunk on the Californian.

'Feel of What It's Like'

"We've had about 5,000 inquiries (from adults) so far," Christman said. "For the adults, it isn't so much of a cruise to teach them seamanship but to give them a feel of what it's like to sail on a vessel like this."

Few adults who have cruised on the Californian have had any experience in sailing such a vessel. The range of sailing experience is sometimes wide, from near-novices to the most experienced of deep-water sailors.

Guest Laurel Livesay, a retired Laguna Niguel resident, said she takes sailing classes at Saddleback College but has "always wanted to go on an overnight cruise on the Californian. I just love this ship."

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