November / December 2023
The first time I saw BRILLIANT, I was sailing aboard another schooner, and she was overtaking us. We were approaching The Race, the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound, and she passed us quickly after a wave and a “Hello!” from her captain. I was a green deckhand, quite literally straight off the farm, and had never seen anything like her.
Olin Stephens drew this 61' 6" gaff-rigged schooner-yacht, capable of ambitious ocean voyaging, after a commission from Walter Barnum in 1930. She was Stephens’s 12th design. The Henry B. Nevins yard built her, and the shipwrights there savored the job, relieved to have work in the depths of the Great Depression. The result is an extraordinary yacht that has remained largely original and, at 91 years old, has yet to require a rebuild.
Since 1953, BRILLIANT has been owned and operated by Mystic Seaport Museum, where she sails extensively as the museum’s voyaging sail-training vessel. She sails with three professional and nine student crew, primarily in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.
As I wrote this, we were sailing home from Maine with a cohort of teenaged deckhands. We left Penobscot Bay in the wake of a snotty little low-pressure system to take advantage of westerlies that would carry BRILLIANT home on a fast close reach. As high pressure slowly built and the wind tapered off, we had to balance patience with a need for speed to make deadlines set by influences outside of our little schooner: currents, pesky schedules, weather windows. Sailing through the night let us sneak through the Cape Cod Canal before the next low-pressure system churned up seas in Massachusetts Bay. All the while, the voyaging routine beat steadily on: crew woke; crew slept; dishes were washed; sails were set, struck, stowed, and set again. The bilge was checked hourly, snack was served, our position was plotted on a paper chart, the off watch was woken for lunch. Someone cleaned the head. Jokes were told that were funny only to those aboard. Last summer was BRILLIANT’s 70th in this program and, as she has done countless times, she barreled forward, taking her young crew home.
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