WBYC Brilliant crew, from left to right at rear: Will Wester, Matt Larkin, Eric Olsen, Andy Mistur, Phil Pirkl, Adam Walburger, Todd Luchsinger, Doug Shepard. Front row from left: First Mate Madeline Weisman, Captain Nicholas Alley, Ship Cook Ger Tysk. (submitted photo)
Willow Bank Yacht Club
This September, eight local sailors from the local Willow Bank Yacht Club (WBYC) will return to Martha’s Vineyard to defend their title as the winners of the 29th Annual Pat West Gaff Rig and Schooner Race. The sailors, consisting of a mixture of current and former commodores (Adam Walburger, Matt Larkin, Doug Shepard), board members (Andy Mistur, Phil Pirkl) and other WBYC members (Eric Olson, Todd Luchsinger, and Will Wester), crewed the historic schooner Brilliant to victory under the leadership of Captain Nicholas Alley, First Mate Madeline Weisman and Ship Cook Ger Tysk.
The 1932 auxiliary schooner Brilliant is owned by the Mystic Seaport Museum and is the platform for one of the nation’s oldest sailing education programs. Brilliant boasts an overall length of just over 60 feet, a displacement of 42 tons, and over 16 tons of keel lead. Characteristic of any schooner, the ship has two masts and carries six sails.
Brilliant has served many roles throughout her years. In 1933, she set a record in elapsed time for vessels of her size when she ran from Nantucket Lightship to Bishop Rock Light, England, in 15 days, 1 hour and 23 minutes. In 1942, Brilliant was donated to the U.S. Coast Guard for anti-submarine patrol work, where she operated out of St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, evidently spotting at least one submarine but without mishap. Brilliant then returned to racing and cruising until 1953, when then owner Briggs Cunningham generously donated her to Mystic Seaport Museum to teach young people the art of seamanship.
Brilliant is seen up and down the East Coast in the summer, competing in various tall ship displays and competitive regattas, as well a serving as a sailing classroom. As part of the sail education program, Brilliant teaches adults and teens ages 15 to 18 traditional nautical skills and other lessons of the sea. Teen sails are scheduled during the summer and adult sails are offered during the spring and fall.
Brilliant has made numerous trans-Atlantic voyages while under the stewardship of the museum. She represents the finest combination in boatbuilding and design from the salad days of American yacht design. More information about the Mystic Seaport Museum and Brilliant are located on their website, mysticseaport.org.
The 2017 WBYC charter marked the 17th year WBYC had charted Brilliant, a tradition started in 2001 under the leadership of former WBYC Commodore Steve Burrell. Burrell handpicked his crew for 14 years and in 2015 turned over responsibilities to Andy Mistur to continue the tradition.
Over the years, the WBYC sailing voyages have made many destinations throughout New England, including Block Island, Greenport, Cuttyhunk, Port Judith, Fishers Island Sound, Newport, Bristol and Martha’s Vineyard. The voyages have included both harbor-hopping adventures as well as competitive sailing regattas. The 2017 victory marked the first time the WBYC crew was able to secure regatta success for the museum.
In last year’s race, the WBYC crew sailed from Mystic, Conn., on a Thursday morning and were strenuously drilled for two days in route to their Vineyard Haven berth. For many of the WBYC crew, this was only the second time aboard Brilliant, they further committed to honing their schooner seamanship skills to ensure they were fully prepared for the demanding sail handling in race conditions.
After two days under sail, with an overnight anchorage in Cuttyhunk, Brilliant and crew arrived in Vineyard Haven on Friday afternoon.
Saturday’s dawn in Vineyard Haven on race day brought very thick fog, light winds and concerns over race cancellation. Fortunately, the race committee called for race commencement after a 30-minute delay, and what would have been an otherwise very disappointed WBYC crew, were prepared to race.
The race consisted of 27 boats of varying sizes. Schooner crews included professionals and amateurs alike that competitively sail in both domestic and international events. The course crossed Vineyard Sound to Nobska, a short leg up the Falmouth shore, and a return leg. Winds started out light and variable but picked up right at the start.
Brilliant and her most formidable competitor, the comparably sized schooner Juno, charged out of a very hectic start. All WBYC crew worked furiously to raise additional sails to take advantage of the wind at the start.
Captain Nicholas Alley sailed expertly, timing the start to perfection and working the sea current to their advantage. Juno had a speed advantage at the start, building a five-boat length lead. Brilliant then came on strong, closing the gap and building her own five boat lead as they charged into a fog bank. Wind remained the issue, coming and going as both boat speed and visibility dropped to almost zero in the fog.
Brilliant sailed through the fog using electronic navigation instruments and WBYC bow lookouts to thread through both commercial ferry traffic and pleasure craft that were unaware of the racing fleet bearing down in the fog. Eventually, Brilliant emerged from the fog on proper course to take advantage of the sea current. Juno emerged from the fog directly behind Brilliant, and immediately tacked to try and gain an advantage that would be their undoing.
Juno was pushed far off course by the sea current and was forced to drop anchor to maintain position. Brilliant jibed right on time to make the first mark, while all other boats struggled taking more than two hours longer to reach the same mark. The race committee called for a shortened course and declared Brilliant the winner.
A post-regatta party was held at the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven where all sailors were treated to one of the finest and most memorable festivals that only a nautical community can provide.
On Sunday morning, Brilliant and her crew departed on a two-day return to Mystic. As challenging as the race was, the Atlantic Ocean was providing its own challenges, with the eye of Hurricane Jose approximately 1,000 miles south.
Hurricane Jose had spent 10 days generating very significant seas swells migrating up the Eastern Coast. The angry seas required Brilliant to initially seek safe harbor at anchorage in Port Judith Harbor, a manmade harbor to protect transiting vessels. The crew found the swells breaking over the top of the seawall as they arrived at dusk and decided to press on to calmer waters. They sailed another 15 miles west to Fishers Island Sound and found safe anchorage for the night which was welcome relief for the battered and tired crew.
Monday brought sunshine and smooth New England coastal sailing and both the trophy and Pat West Cup returned with Brilliant to Mystic Seaport for the year.
This year’s charter will take place September 13 to 17 and the same crew of eight WBYC sailors will again be going to sea aboard Brilliant to defend their 2017 victory in the 30th Pat West Gaff Rig and Schooner Race.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.