The schooner Quinnipiack

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The word “flagship” gets used loosely a lot, to mean “the most important one of a bunch of things.” But if you’re a centuries-old city which takes great pride in its waterfront, you might actually have a flagship that’s a ship.

The official flagship of New Haven is the schooner Quinnipiack, owned and sailed by Schooner, Inc. The organization has been around since 1975, helping scientists and schoolchildren use Long Island Sound as “a living laboratory” for educational projects and environmental awareness.

The boat itself is as gorgeous as the water on which it sails. Ninety-one feet long and made almost exclusively of Maine Hackmatack and Eastern Larch wood, it was modeled on Mississippi freight schooners that could easily maneuver shallow waters such as can be found in the Long Island Sound.

A trip on the Quinnipiack shows you New Haven as you’ve probably never seen it before. Those waterfront restaurants with the sea views, Sage and Lenny & Joe’s? You’re what they see. A bit further out to sea, the sensations are more visceral: breezes and sprays and rays of golden sun. It’s one of the most delightful two hours you can spend in the city, just feeling the pressures and stresses of life fade away.

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On a recent balmy Saturday afternoon, Schooner was holding one of its popular Pirate Cruises. The captain was the burly, good-natured Tommy Seda, who also serves as Schooner Inc.’s full-time year-round Waterfront Director. After explaining that there are plenty of lifejackets on board, Captain Tommy’s instructions to passengers are simple: “You must stay on the boat.”

“Usually,” Captain Tommy says, “we’re in full pirate gear” for the Family Pirate Sails. But the 100-degree weather that day would have added several more degrees of discomfort to the costumes. None of the captives and scallywags on board seemed to mind that the “pirates” weren’t in uniform. A Schooner excursion is its own treasure-like reward. Besides, some of the children wore pirate-like bandanas and eyepatches. For those who wanted to look the part, there were face painting and temporary-tattooing activities. There was also a riotous reading of the children’s book How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long and David Shannon and a workshop on how to make your own treasure map.

Oh, and the kids even get to help hoist the sail.

Schooner’s seafaring staff sees to it that nobody on board gets bored. But the main attraction is the sea itself, abetted by a view of the coastline you can’t get from any other type of vehicle. The Quinnipiack sails out past the oil tanks along New Haven Harbor, giving you a beautiful view of Lighthouse Point. There’s lots of water to look at on all sides, but also interesting diversions like the man-made breaker walls which provide a natural point for the voyage to turn around and start back to shore.

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In their line of work, the Schooner staff are known as “day sailors,” since they don’t take passengers on the vessel overnight. Most of the crew, however, spend most of their own nights onboard. The Quinnipiack is where they work and where they sleep, in small cabins below deck. On particularly hot nights they’ve been known to hook up hammocks on deck and sleep that way. Becca Hopkins, who hails from South Carolina, slept on board for a while then found an apartment in Fair Haven. “People who do this work,” she explains, “do a contract here, a contract there. They move around throughout the year, wherever the sailing is.” Many of the Quinnipiack crew members find work through Tall Ships of America, a national non-profit which, like Schooner Inc., is dedicated to furthering the development of seafaring skills and maritime heritage.

The ship’s public sails are mainly a summer thing—the season ends at the end of September—but Schooner Inc. is a year-round watery concern. “The main thing,” Captain Tommy says, “is education. School groups. We teach them about water quality, the environment…” The Pirate cruises show off the flagship’s fun side, but Schooner also does public Science Cruises. They also arrange many charter trips, and are about to partner with the University of New Haven for class excursions.

Clearly, the Quinnipiack is very much about learning and answering questions. For example: do the schooner sailors get to climb the rigging or the 62-foot mast? “Sure,” Captain Tommy grins. “We did a rig inspection earlier today.” Another thing they did that day, on this very trip: dodge a thunderstorm.

The crew can keep track of the weather through a number of modern instruments, including their cell phones. Noticing a small squall nearby, they communicated with a Schooner employee on shore who had access to more detailed data, and were able to come up with a plan to evade the annoying weather pattern. “In summer, there can be some really small squalls, the size of a small town,” the captain says. With every member of the small crew helping, some adjustments were made to the sail and the schooner shifted direction smoothly, and not at all abruptly. On the way back to shore, Captain Tommy noted how the wind pattern had completely changed during the journey.

That’s just what a flagship ought to do. Strike a course, head out proudly, stir up the waters a bit, and show us which way the wind blows.

The schooner Quinnipiack
New Haven Docks, 389 Long Wharf Drive, New Haven (map)
Main: (203) 865-1737 | Public Sails: (203) 535-2016 |
Public Sail costs: $50 adults, $25 children.

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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