Often when a vibrant and spry lady turns 85, friends and relations will remark that she “looks good for her age.” Certainly this compliment applies to the schooner Brilliant, which is celebrating the 85th anniversary of her launch on April 23.
For 65 of her years, Brilliant has sailed under the Mystic Seaport flag. She has had only five captains in that time, the current being Nicholas Alley, now in his sixth season. Perhaps even more remarkable, since she came to Mystic, more than 10,000 children have sailed on her in one of the oldest youth sail training programs in the country. Alley says it is both an honor and daunting to be her captain.
“There are a lot of expectations,” Alley says. “I feel pressure that the boat has to look a certain way; she has to look ship-shape and Bristol fashion. There’s an expectation she has to be well-sailed – not just fast in a race, but in a seaman-like way at all times, efficiently and effectively. And I am carrying on a tradition that dates back 65 years under the Mystic Seaport flag with legendary captains. It is quite an honor.”
Brilliant was given to Mystic Seaport in 1953 specifically to be used as a sail training vessel for youth. She had been custom-designed as a gaff-rigged schooner by Olin Stephens of Sparkman & Stephens for Walter Barnum, and was built in the Henry B. Nevins yard at City Island, N.Y. After World War II she was bought by Briggs Cunningham, who had her masts lengthened and her sail area increased in the hopes of increasing her speed. It was Cunningham who donated her to the Museum.
Brilliant‘s small world
George Hathaway of Schuylerville, N.Y., is a Mystic Seaport member who has sailed on Brilliant six times since 2005, including once when he chartered the vessel for friends and family to sail to Greenport, N.Y. “Once we got out from Mystic, the wind really picked up,” Hathaway recalled. “It was really rough. We couldn’t even get to Greenport; we were just churning in the washing machine. A couple of the guys didn’t do too well and they weren’t liking me so much. So we went back to Mystic for the night. We went downtown, got some dinner, everyone started to feel better. The next day was beautiful – winds were 5-10 knots and we decided just to do a circumnavigation of Fishers Island.”
As Brilliant was heading back from Fishers Island, Hathaway said, “We saw two submarines. One was heading out and the other was coming in. Our tack took us directly between the two subs. And our captain got a call from one of the (sub escort) boats asking him to state his intentions. It was certainly something to remember.”
In a somewhat incredible “Brilliant small world” story, Hathaway went to work for a bank in upstate New York after he retired from his first career at the Saratoga Race Course. He met a colleague named Virginia Clark, and as they were chatting about hobbies and interests, Hathaway mentioned sailing on Brilliant. Clark knew the boat well – she had been a Mariner Girl Scout and had sailed on Brilliant as a girl in the 1950s. When she passed away a few years ago, Hathaway made a donation to Brilliant in her memory.
The beauty of a boat like Brilliant, Hathaway says, is just that: It brings people together in a shared experience that creates deep bonds. He sailed in 2013 on an excursion with no one he knew, “but one thing I love about Brilliant is how quickly you can become a crew – you come together to do everything that needs to be done to sail that boat. It’s always a very interesting and a very rewarding experience.”
Staying true to the mission
It’s that bonding experience that keeps Brilliant true to Mystic Seaport’s mission, says Steve White, president of Mystic Seaport. “I’m a firm believer that the best lessons in life are learned at sea. For some 65 years, Brilliant has provided these lessons every summer for almost 10,000 young people. Her impact is immeasurable, and for those lucky ones who have been to sea for five to 10 days on her, they are all the wiser. But how lucky Mystic Seaport has been to serve Brilliant’s steward for all these years. In her is the legacy of Olin Stephens; she is the embodiment of Mystic Seaport’s core values and she represents us so well everywhere she sails!”
Cunningham remained proud of her role at Mystic Seaport, and the Museum’s stewardship of the boat, until his death at age 96 in 2003. In a letter dated Feb. 16, 1989, he wrote to a Seaport employee named D.H. Boyden, in reply to an update on Brilliant Boydon had sent along:
“My children … loved her. I always wanted her to do the job with children she is doing at Mystic, as I felt she was so well built, they could hardly get into any trouble as they learned to handle her. I think you and Capt. [George] Moffett, as well as all the others involved in her maintenance, are doing a wonderful job.”
The mission Alley lives every day on the boat is to “share her on as many levels as we can. Whether it’s the students, volunteers, passengers or just someone talking to you on the side of the dock, she’s recognized and welcomed everywhere she goes. That’s the mission. People hear ‘sail training’ and they assume we are going to teach you how to sail. No. We are teaching you how to communicate, work together and be responsible. We take 12 strangers and put them in tight quarters and then we build a team. We teach life skills using a boat. The boat is the one teaching them. It’s why I do it.”