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Canvassing the Coasts / New England

Using wind, sails and willing passengers, two tall ships travel back to the 19th century

February 09, 1997|JOHN BUDRIS | Budris is a freelance writer based in Martha's Vineyard

ABOARD THE SHENANDOAH — Few skippers can coax 150 feet of schooner into port under canvas alone, make her hull lightly kiss wooden dock pilings and scarcely kick up a splinter. Capt. Robert J. Douglas is one of them.

Douglas is in his 34th year as master and captain of the Shenandoah--his obsession with yellow pine, white oak, sail power, and doing things the old way. For most of the visitors and residents on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., the island's Steamship Authority diesel and steel ferries comprise the world of boats. For Douglas and two dozen guests, Shenandoah is the island flagship whose only agenda is determined by wind and tide.

Built in 1963 at the Harvey Gamage boat works of South Bristol, Maine, the Shenandoah was modeled by Douglas after a Civil War-era revenue cutter (the Coast Guard ship of the time)--a design known for sleek lines and exceptional speed in finicky winds. It was also a favorite with slave traders.

"That's exactly why the government liked them too. Captains charged with running down rum smugglers and pirates usually caught what they chased," says Douglas. Steven Spielberg, impressed with the ship's authenticity, shot some of his new film (working title, "The Amistad"), about a 1838 slave-ship uprising, on board the Shenandoah.

Between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, hundreds of thousands of tourists are ground through Martha's Vineyard's daily mill of ferry, food and T-shirt shops. The Vineyard in summer is no tranquil, laid-back place.

But instead of traffic noise, guests on the Shenandoah get the groan of creaking oak and cloud and sky shows that sway behind a silhouette of rigging and spars.

Monday mornings aboard the Shenandoah are predictable. Most guests have spent the night on the ship and are antsy to get under way. They pester Douglas and the crew with questions of itinerary. "Will we make it to Nantucket today? What about Newport (Rhode Island) tomorrow? Are we ever going to see the mansions?" The answer of "We'll see" is sincere, but small mutinies brew when the schooner lays at anchor past noon.

"It usually takes a couple of days for passengers to break into the rhythm of what sailing in a Civil War-era ship means. We can't crank on the diesel and hope for cocktails in the port of choice," says Douglas. "We move the way cargo and passengers moved 150 years ago."


AThis six-day cruise, last September, was my second aboard the Shenandoah, so I knew what kind of time machine I was getting onto. Even before we left port, I was certain that the 25 other passengers, including my 12-year-old son, would quickly adapt to the 19th century.

And just a couple of days later, one first-time sailor told me, "It took until the second night to get into that rhythm of not caring about where we might, or might not, go. It actually was such a relief to be unburdened of having to plan."

Shenandoah is a square topsail schooner. She'll do 12 knots (15 mph) with no fuss at all, yet has no auxiliary power other than a diesel-driven yawl-boat--a kind of open, wooden tug stored aboard the ship. When the wind fails altogether, the yawl-boat nudges Shenandoah into anchorage.

A ship of this size and vintage needs tending around the clock, and passengers are invited to participate. At 7 sharp each morning, the decks are hosed down and the brass polish comes out. Breakfast won't be served until this rite is complete, so guests have an incentive to join in.

To raise and lower several tons of sail, all hands are needed on deck. Under the orders of the bosun, the nautical equivalent of a drill sergeant, a dozen passengers line up on either side of the deck, heft a thick Manila line in hand, and wait for his commands. Inches at a time, the telephone-pole-size boom and sail rise skyward.

For the more energetic, the crew will give lessons on coiling lines and making them fast. For the intrepid, going aloft at the end of the day to help stow the topsails is a true test of acrobatic skills. But just lazing on deck with a drink or snuggling in with a book also are passenger options.

If Shenandoah has a port of choice it is Tarpaulin Cove on the shore of Naushon Island, just a few miles off the Vineyard's north coast. The five-mile-long island is among the privately owned Elizabeth Islands, a Forbes family holding since the mid-1800s. Special arrangements allow anchorage at one of the most pristine coves left in New England. Occasionally, deer will act as escorts for evening beach walks. Site of a defunct lighthouse, the cove once served as a 19th century mail depot when Vineyard Sound was the main thoroughfare for the New York-to-Boston clipper trade.

From Naushon Island, Shenandoah commonly haunts Buzzards Bay and makes anchor in the small Massachusetts port towns of Mattapoisett and Marion, coastal communities with long maritime traditions that tourism and real estate development have yet to profane. When winds are perfect, calls at Cuttyhunk Island or Mystic, Conn., are occasional surprises on weeklong voyages.

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