Sailing on the Old Time Schooner

Ian Clayton Author Rogues in Paradise. August 2007
– update 2022 © AXSES 2022

Friendship Rose Sailing the Grenadines is a firsthand account of a sailing trip to the Tobacco cays in the Grenadines.

tobago cays beach in the grenadines - off the back of friendship rose

She Creeks and Rolls Over the Waves

The Friendship Rose, Caribbean Sailing Schooner, creeks as she rolls over the waves. She is heavy in the water, framed with solid Bequia white cedar and Guyana green, she is strong and sure. Norway pines, 80 feet tall as fat as two rugby players, brace the 600 yards of sail that power her. She is a working boat, a thoroughbred, the last of of the working wooden Caribbean Sailing schooners.

Friendship Rose Sailing the Grenadines hoisting sails
Sailing in the old time way on an old time wooden sailing schooner is hard work. Raising 600 yards of canvass and the upper boom, in a gusting wind, takes skill and muscle. There are no winches and powered gear as in a modern sailing boat. Manpower lifts the sail as winds wrestle the canvas and its rigging.

Friendship Rose Sailing lee pulls the sheets

The sailing crew are agile, dancing with the wind and canvas, hanging on the sheets to lever the sails. It takes 4 men of good size to hoist the main sail of the Classic Caribbean Schooner; 100 feet of wood and sailing power.

One, two, three, and pull.
Tighten the grip and take up the slack,
Ley is falling on his back.
Tighten the grip and take up the slack.
Pull the sheet to set him back.
Tighten the grip and take up the slack,
hoist that sail before we tack.!.

It is a choreography of trust and power, a dance of daring. The captain of the Frienship Rose, old man Lewis, one of 4 that built her, watches the canvas rise and flutter.

Friendship Rose Sailing - A sail snags andlee jumps the boom

“Steady as she goes”, he seems to say.

A sheet is snagged;
Ley jumps onto the boom and loosens it.

One, two, three and pull,
hoist that sail,
pull that sheet,
the crew are dancing to the beat,
with Captain Lewis on his feet…

“Steady as she goes”

Wind in the Sails of Friendship Rose

the boom is massive on Friendship Rose on out trio to Grenadines

The Classic Caribbean sailing schooner heads off the wind and grips the sea. She schoons over the waves dipping and rising with the troughs, moving faster than the wind. Sailing at an angle to the wind generates a powerful force that will push and pull her forward with more power than the wind itself.

The canvas fills,
the boom swings,
the sheets hold.

…… Powerful!

We sit on the wooden deck, on cushioned benches, in a strong wind, sailing the grenadines, rising and sliding over 5-foot swells. Her massive boom hugs the mast, a simple wishbone footing holding it perfectly in place, held there by nature.

shoooner-wishbone sails on the mast
Wood bearing on wood, creaking.
Riggings slapping.
Wind on canvas, whooshing.
Sea splashing.

…… Haunting!.

Memory of Bye-gone Days

She rolls on the swell, plowing through the waves as playful as a whale. The Friendship Rose, a classic wooden schooner, is one with the sea, a purposed part of it, a memory of bye-gone days, of working sailing ships and men. A part of the landscape, she blends with the sea and sky, sometimes silver under a cloud, or shinning like a diamond in the sun.  She was built for trade, but her sleek design and power sailes made her fast and agile. As a pirate ship, she plundered bigger gallions and ran off to shelter in shallow cays where bigger ships with massive keels could not enter.

In the Distance Mustique, Canouan, Myreau, Union Island, Tobago Cays

Today we are schooner sailing to Tobago Cays. It is a full day sail starting with breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, pastries, fruit, coffee and tea on board at 7:30. Friendship Rose anchors in the Tobago Cays, Grenadines, just before midday. We snorkel, swim, and explore some of the 5 uninhabited islands, set amongst the crystal blue Caribbean waters and shallow walk-about reefs.

There are turtle and reef fish all around. Lunch is ginger chicken, savory rice, and vegetables served on china. We dine with French wine, sitting on the deck in the shade of the Canvas. A few take an after-lunch dip and dive off the bow of the schooner. We schooner sail home to the setting sun with tea and coconut fudge and the warm friendship of the Rose.

grenadines-islands sailing off friendship rose

Tobago Cays Beach Off Friedship Rose

I was sailing here when men first landed on the moon. We looked up at the moon that night amazed that people were there maybe looking back t us. When we shared the experience with others the next day, most just did not believe it. “Impossible,” they said. “Man can’t go to the moon.” It is hard to believe when you live in this tranqil, peacful archipelago. Just five tiny uninhabited islands you can get to only by boat: The islands Petit Rameau, Petit Bateau, Baradal, Petit Tobac and Jamesby form the heart of the Tobago Cays Marine Park, a national park and wildlife reserve. Its far away from rocket that travel to the moon.

Built by Hand: Local Wood & Bequia Men

“40 years,” says captain Lewis, “40 years sailing. Took 3 years and 4 men to build her. Built strong she is. Searched Bequia’s tallest hills to find the right trees. Still strong she is, after 40 years of work. She was the Bequia – St Vincent ferry, the mail boat, a trading schooner when sail-powered boats as they did before diesel”.

“She was launched without an Engine”, he explains, “but after we drifted for eight days with no wind on a trip to St Lucia, we added the engine”.

It’s the last of a line. Wooden sailboats are replaced by steel diesel ships for trade and recreational sailors now want power rigging and sleek fiberglass that is far easier to maintain.

“We have to take her out of the water every 2 years and fix her hull,” says Captain Lewis. “Many a plank to replace, fiber is the modern way”.

A Short History of the Caribbean Sailing Schooner

captain lewis at the wheel

Modern boats don’t move like the schooner, so named after the verb to scoon, or skip over the water.

She revolutionized marine trading in the early 1700s. The first boats were record of the boat is traced to Boston in 1714, and thousands were built along the US and Canadian Maritime. It sailed along the American coast and down into the Caribbean and South America. Trading salt fish for rum and sugar. The Schooner became the standard trading ship of the Caribbean. It was also a perfect Pirates ship, prized for its speed, agility, and its ability to maneuver in shallow waters.

Friendship Rose Sailing anchored at Bequia

Power Boating

As we move on to a new age of powerboating, the old age of wood and sail lingers, with its distinctive romance: a feel, a sense, a sound and a memory. Sailing the Grenadines, I saw, amongst the smart and modern plastic catamarans, some modern wooden sailboats, looking majestic and proud. There are many who still appreciate the values of the schooner but the days of the 100-foot trading schooner have sadly gone.

Friendship Rose, remains, saved from being sold as a pirate ship, by its new owners Alan and Meg Whitaker, it lets us relive the days of old, skipping on the water with wind, skill, and brawn, in harmony with nature.

the bookm and wishone of friendshiprose as we sail to tobago cays

Making Wood Dingies & Replicas

Over 70 wooden vessels were built and launched in Bequia in 1920s. Its been a tradition introduced by the Scottish in the 1800s. The boats were vital to the whaling industry. Using simple hand tools the Sargent family now makes miniature models of the ancient ships using White Pine, Mahogany, and Gum wood.

A schooner is a sleek design and skips thru the water powered by wind in the sails. It has fore-and-aft sails and generally two masts. The forward mast is not taller than the rear masts. The rigging of the schooner is very precise and gives the ship a lot of power. From the bowsprit, there may be two jib sails and a fore-staysail. The foremast always maybe a gaff-sail or a triangular bermuda sail. The same is true of the shorter mainmast, and if it has one, the mizzenmast. There can also be additional staysails and square sails. This type of fore and aft rig makes the schooner one of the best vessels for tacking, and sailing very close to the wind. This gives the schooner a distinct advantage if an enemy has the wind on “their” side, and can therefore chase prize merchant vessels at angles of wind that are uncomfortably slow for them.

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A Memory of Friendship Rose Sailing the Grenadines! Story by Ian R. Clayton, author of Rogues in Paradise.
Please note that this trip was in 2015. Much may have changed and it’s best to check schedules and dates and to plan ahead.

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Friendship Rose shop in Bequia

Summary Video – Sailing on an Old Time Schooner

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