Keeping the Past Alive
The bright red sails catch the late October sun as they are hauled one by one up the massive, 86-foot masts. They tower over the smaller, more modern sailboats and motorboats cruising through Newport Harbor. There’s a steady southwest wind that fills the last of the six sails and draws the 102-foot schooner slowly out into the bay. It’s the last sail of the season for the schooner Aurora, the only vessel in the bay with Nantucket red sails, as she softly heels to her starboard side and quietly carries passengers away on one of the last warm evenings of the year.
“It’s almost magical in a sense because you’re on this vessel that you got off the dock with teamwork effort and you are now moving it with just the wind,” says Brain Simas, who has been a deckhand on Aurora for two seasons. “It’s rewarding and you never really get tired of it or jaded.”
Part of the magic is the nostalgia for the past, says Justin Berhnart, who has been Aurora’s captain for the last seven years. “[Schooners] are like a working active museum because they’re still being sailed and you can see the rigging the same as it would’ve worked way back when.”
Before she was the Aurora, she was named Louanne and was built in 1947 in Thomaston, Maine. “She was built as a motor vessel, known as an eastern dragger, that was used in the fishing industry for sardines, and probably some other kind of white fish as well,” says Bernhart, adding that these types of vessels were popular in the region. “This was how cargo was carried around New England and various other places 100 years ago, and the boat is essentially the same.”
For 40 years, the Louanne brought in sardines for a cannery until she sunk one night on the way back into port. According to the story, says Berhnart, the insurance company salvaged the boat because the fish in the hold were worth more than the boat itself. An old schoonerman came by the shipyard, saw that it was for sale and bought it despite there being a big hole in one side and all the mechanical aspects destroyed. The boat was outfitted with a sailing rig and turned into a daysailer because the hull shape was the same as a schooner.
“I always joke that those old Maine shipwrights didn’t know how to build anything but a schooner hull,” laughs Bernhart. “[It] was easily converted into sail … in the late ’80s or early ’90s.”
(Above) The schooner Aurora sails under the Newport Bridge. Photograph by Onne van der Wal
The Louanne was renamed the Francis Todd and sailed out of Bar Harbor before being brought to Newport as the Aurora for day sails and charters. Although she wasn’t always a sailing vessel, the Aurora’s traditional rig and history draws many to become crew.
“Crew on schooners or traditional vessels start without a whole lot of experience on the water, but they’re just drawn to the nostalgia,” says Bernhart. “They don’t have a lot of qualifications…They come in pretty green and a lot of them get hooked on it and often don’t leave even for the extra money they would make on yachts or racing sailboats.
“It was my first boat that I ever sailed on,” says Melissa Conlon, who has been working on the Aurora for three seasons. Conlon, who had been working in film and media before working on boats, says that she wasn’t very athletic growing up and didn’t feel there was a place for her in the sailing community until she discovered the Aurora. “I was never someone who thought she could [sail]. So when I did get out on the water, it was refreshing, like, ‘Oh, I’m using my body but also doing this craft that’s very traditional,’” she says, adding that it’s the type of industry that draws an eclectic crew. “It’s a group of misfits who’ve come from all types of life experiences, so they’re a little bit more of a weathered soul, usually.”
Like Conlon, Simas didn’t know about the tallship industry before working on the Aurora. He had been working on smaller skiffs but was more focused on his art of printmaking. “I didn’t really know that kind of scene was still happening…I thought that age of sail [had] ended.” Simas agrees with Conlon that there’s a satisfaction with having to use your whole body when sailing a schooner.
“Nowadays on sailboats, the sails will go up with the push of a button or the flick of the switch, whereas [on] these old schooners the sails go up by you untying and getting the line off the pin and raising it with your bare hands, getting it cinched and tight by dropping your bodyweight into the line. And when you have to maneuver, tack and jib the boat, it’s all using your body, using your hands. There’s no switch.”
And like most schooners, the Aurora isn’t known for speed when compared to other boats in the bay, which are sleeker and lighter. That’s because the Aurora, being made of wood, weighs nearly 77 tons with about 40,000 pounds of ballast, and has a greater sail area that is carried lower than the sails on modern vessels, says Bernhart. “The shape of the sail isn’t square but it’s more square…It takes more sail area to move a big heavy schooner through the water than a modern, sleek hydrodynamic racing hull, or a modern rigged vessel.”
The fastest the Aurora has sailed in Bernhart’s experience was a little over 9 knots, which he says is a high speed for that kind of boat.
“If we go 8 knots, we get all giddy like it’s Christmas Day,” says Simas, explaining the feeling of when the boat heels. “You have these monstrous red sails that are towering above you…and the whole vessel is lopsided and you’re struggling for balance. You think you’re going to tip over, which is people’s first fear, but you won’t—not on a boat that size, unless you’re going to sail into a hurricane.”
But today is not that kind of day. Winds remain steady from the southwest at around 15 knots as heavy fog settles over the bay and the sun begins to dip. The Aurora looks like a ghost ship returning to port as she passes Fort Adams in Newport through the mist. After today, some of the crew will head south or elsewhere to work other boats in warmer waters during the winter season. Some, however, will stay to remove all of the rigging and prep the vessel for being hauled out of the water for winter maintenance and repairs.
“Working on a vessel like this, I feel like I’m making a difference at the end of the day,” says Simas. “You are part of the boat, so if you’re short one man it’s going to make all the difference. You do matter and there’s that sense of teamwork and community…you’re part of this living history. You’re doing the same kind of things and have the same kind of worries that other sailors have had for the past thousands of years.”
by Meredith Haas
Top photograph courtesy of Newport Experience