Lumbering beyond the breakwalls of historic Key West Seaport, with a frisky zodiac acting as a bow thruster, Captain George Smith eased the throttles and brought his vesselís long bowsprit into the wind. As the schooner Western Union
slowed, the 20 or so guests helped the crew haul up the gaff-headed main and foresail. I admit, most guests were more concerned about keeping their drinks on an even keel than putting their backs into the job at hand. As the first mate gave orders to ease the peak halyard a bit and take up on the throat, the onboard musician broke into the shanty "Hard Away Joe," accompanied by his hammered dulcimer.
Of course I knew this was all orchestrated for the exploitation of the nautical touristoópaunchy captains one and all, clad in Hawaiian shirts and flips flopsóbut I confess, I am a sucker for this kind of thing. Wherever I travel I find myself sampling local craft, from rough-hewn dugout water taxis to top-heavy tour boats offering hokey harbor cruises. Even after a long delivery, within a day or two of landfall you can usually find me aboard something floating, getting my bearings and learning the lore. An old girlfriend couldnít believe that I once wanted to take the ferry across Japanís Inland Sea just days after wrapping up a four-month, 12,000-mile delivery.
Try as I may to be a practical-minded sailboat skipper, or even a hard-bitten journalist, I just canít pull it off. Iím a closet romantic, and aboard Western Union
, with the sweet dulcimer ringing, it didnít require a huge leap of imagination to picture myself as a 19th-century Keys "wrecker" racing to claim salvage rights for a vessel stricken on a nearby reef. As I dreamed, the big schooner fell off the wind and the jibs were hoisted. The crew trimmed the sheets and Captain Smith canned the diesel. We were under sail, all 5,200 glorious square feet of it, gliding past a multitude of envious glares from those gathered along the quay at Mallory Square and I didnít give damn if I had paid 25 bucks for a sunset cruise.
The schooner Western Union
, the official flagship of Key West, returned to her port of origin in 1997 and has been earning her keep by hauling cargos of tourists looking for a diversion from drinking and buying T-shirts on Duval Street. The Western Union
has always been a working schooner, she was never a yacht and was actually one of the last commercial sailing vessels constructed in US. With an LOA of 130 feet, it was surprising to learn that her load draft was just a whisker over seven feet.
"She was built right over there," explained Harry Bowman, the Western Unionís
Port Captain. Earlier that afternoon we were perched in the Schooner Wharf Bar at the foot of William Street in old town, and one of the few authentic drinking establishments left in Key West. Bowman pointed across the harbor at the Galleon Marina and condo development. "It used to be a shipyard, one of the best in the country, Hemingway wrote about it in "To Have and Have Not." The Western Union
was splashed right there off Simonton Beach in 1939."
Designed to lay and service cable in the shallow waters of the Keys and the other shoal areas of Caribbean, the Western Union was framed with Spanish Mahogany from the Cayman Islands. "That was a durable wood, used on a lot of southern schooners," Bowman told me, "unfortunately there isnít a tree left standing." Her planks were fashioned from long leaf yellow pine. Like any old wooden vessel, she had her share of refits over the years, but most of her hull and deck are original timbers.
"Sheís had her share of adventures," Bowman continued as two more Coronas plopped down on our table. "Just before the Bay of Pigs fiasco she was captured by the Cubans down in the Windward Passage. The Cubans claimed she was spying. The Captain faked engine problems and refused to be towed into port. He was able to send a message back to Key West and the government and the company arranged the shipís release." It is coincidental," Bowman says with a wry grin, "that the invasion began two weeks later." The Western Union
did later visit Cuba on a humanitarian mission with Jimmy Buffet and Mariel Hemingway aboard.
Historic Tours of America, which owns and operates the Western Union
, purchased the replica schooner America
in 1998. The legendary low black schooner, the winner of the 100 Guinea Cup in 1851, an event which has come to be known as the Americaís Cup ever since, sunk ignominiously under a shed near the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1942. In 1995, Ray Giovanni, a businessman from Virginia, commissioned a recreation of the sleek schooner and this is the graceful America
that now sails out of Boston in the summer and then heads to Key West in the fall, where she sails most every day.
Another classic vessel here, the Wolf, is a 74-foot topsail schooner. In addition to her day charter schedule in Key West, the Wolf has made a couple of voyages to the island of Guanaja off the coast of Honduras, delivering relief supplies after the island was devastated by Hurricane Mitch. Thereís also the gaff schooner Liberty, which is 80 feet LOA and can accommodate 44 passengers.
|"I need to get to sea at least once a day," Zimmerman says, "just getting a few miles away from the island restores my perspective and my sanity."|
Back on the water, I was standing by the helm with my daughter Narianna, enjoying the music of Gary Zimmerman, a well-known Key West performer who has been sailing with the Western Union
for years. "I need to get to sea at least once a day," Zimmerman says, "just getting a few miles away from the island restores my perspective and my sanity." He serves up a variety of shanties, folks songs, and classics, including Irving Berlinís "Iíll see you in Cuba," always a crowd favorite. Narianna, who has spent a good chunk of almost nine years aboard sailboats, casually informed Captain Smith that she had a sailboat. "Is that so," the Captain replied, "well then miss why donít you take the helm." Before I could lodge a protest, she was steering 80 tons of schooner toward the open sea.
The easterly was steady at 10 knots and once she gathered momentum, Western Union
cut through water with an easy motion, there was only a slight pitch to her teak decks. "Bring her up a bit, thatís right, youíre doing fine." Narianna, who is not shy about dishing out advice, let the captain know that the boat had too much lee helm. "Youíre right," he said, and mentioned that was a result of the schoonerís hull shape. "She was designed to service cable in shallow water, naturally seven feet of draft isnít much for a vessel of this size. Also, she is beamy, they needed her to lie relatively flat in rough seas to allow the crew to work the cable. Add that long sprit to the mix and you have a recipe for lee helm." Smith, who with his wife spent 10 years cruising all over the world in a 42-foot wooden cutter before settling in Key West, clapped me on the shoulder, "the kid knows her stuff."
About five miles offshore, Gary Zimmerman called attention to a small woven box. It held a couple of homing pigeons, the forerunner to radio and satellite communications. During the sailing age, ships carried pigeons to relay messages back home. The pigeons had a range of 200 to 300 miles. With a flourish, Zimmerman set the birds free. After circling the ship they took off in the direction of Key West. Soon it was dark, the meter was ticking on our sunset cruise, it was time to follow the birds. I was duly impressed as Smith brought the boat through the wind, gained way, and headed back to Key West. He soon confessed that he was trying to impress me; in winds less than 15 knots, most tacks aboard this vessel involve a boost from the diesel.
Although the Western Union
can accommodate up to 76 guests, on this magical evening we were lucky, the ship was not crowded. As I roamed the rough-hewn deck, I thought about how nice it would be to ease the sheets and head south, southwest and play the Gulf Stream into Havana. It was just 90 miles away. Ah but then I remembered that we were just another bunch of touristos, there would be no real voyage on this night. However, I must confess that the idea of finding an old schooner to deliver someplace faraway has been haunting me ever since. Stay tuned, because I have a bad habit of acting on many of my most irrational ideas.
Where Sailing AboundsKey West and schooners? That isnít how most of us think about this famous marl spit at the end of Route A1A. No, most sailors associate Key West with Race Week, especially Sailnet.com readers who know that Sailnet is a former sponsor of this annual midwinter event. Check out Walter Cooperís images from last January, theyíre exhilarating (A New Era for Key West Race Week, and Racecourse Lessons from Key West by Dobbs Davis). The powerful Farr 50 Esmeralda cutting through stirred up turquoise waters on her way to victory. The lively ID35s competing head-to-head in an aggressive one-design class. From Farr 40s and Melges 24s, to the big boys of ocean racing, Key West is a major stop on the racing circuit. But for all the thrill of Race Week, it is just that, a week in January and then everybody goes home.
Of course, the J/World sailing school has a base in Key West during the winter months, but that requires a commitment to a sailing vacation. For the more casual sailor Key West is a surprisingly good place to day sail in a wide variety of craft. From the fast cats operated by Sebago, (which have unfortunately been converted into snorkel trip cattle cars) to several large schooners, to a host of private sailboats that offer everything from specialty cruises for the gay community to packaged bereavement outings, it can be argued that Key West offers more genuine sailing opportunities than any other seaport in the country, especially in season when the majestic schooners line the wharf.
The Love of Landfalls by John Kretschmer
An Island in the Stream by John Kretschmer
Rounding Cape Hatteras by John Kretschmer
Buying Guide: Chartplotters