Growing up near Lake Erie I became interested in shipping on the Great Lakes. A friend of my father gave us a tour of an ore boat unloading in Cleveland Harbor. We watched many ore boats and saltwater freighters pass by when we were out fishing on Lake Erie.
My grandfather Blair Wilcox was a civil engineer who managed a salt mine for the Morton Salt Co. at Manistee, Michigan. Much of the rock salt from the mine that extends for miles under Lake Michigan was sent out by ship. He and my father went sailing on their gaff-rigged sailboat on northern Lake Michigan.
My grandfather took a photo of the last commercial schooner on the Great Lakes, the J.T. Wing, as it was dropping its sails entering Manistee Harbor. The J.T. Wing had a remarkably long history, built in Nova Scotia, was a rum-runner in the Caribbean, hauling lumber on the Great Lakes, and finally as a sail training ship for the Sea Scouts in Detroit.
Schooners are fast sailboats with fore-and-aft sails, rather than square-rigged sails. Developed in France and New England, schooners became widely used for pilot boats, fishing and for carrying freight. Most schooners have two masts and gaff-rigged fore and main sails and one or more jibs and a bowsprit. Some schooners were enormous, like the six-masted coal haulers built in Maine in the late 1800s.
Following the War of 1812, schooners became the predominant vessels on the Great Lakes. From the 1800s to the 1920s, more than 3,000 schooners sailed on the lakes, carrying immigrants, lumber, pulpwood, salt, limestone, coal, livestock and metal ore. According to historians, the heyday of schooners on the Great Lakes was from the 1840s until the Civil War during the great westward expansion. Then steam-powered ships took over the passenger and freight trade on the lakes.
By the turn of the century, few schooners were still working, picking up cargo where they could. Most were two-masted boats sailed by a crew of four that were worked hard until they sank or rotted.
The two-masted modern wooden schooner Huron Jewel arrived at Washburn, Wisconsin, when I was there last week. I met owners Hugh and Julie Covert of Drummond Island, Michigan, who graciously gave a tour of their boat. They explained that with the pandemic their Drummond Island Tall Ship Co. has not been able to do sailing tours out of their home port. They had taken on some interns to learn sailing skills so they decided to take a trip onto Lake Superior. They had visited a number of Wisconsin and Michigan ports already and had just been to Duluth where many people had a chance to tour the boat, a few at a time, keeping distance and wearing masks.
The Huron Jewel was designed and built by Hugh and Julie Covert in two-and-a-half years with the help of many friends and relatives. Launched in June of 2018, she is a 78-foot schooner with 60-foot tall masts, 1,700 square feet of sail, shallow four-foot draft with a centerboard that can be lowered down to nine feet when sailing.
The Jewel is designed to meet Coast Guard requirements for passenger vessels and is equipped with two diesel engines. The Jewel is the ninth sailing vessel designed, built and skippered by Hugh. Every part of her is handcrafted from one or more of 18 species of wood. The interior has warm, beautiful woodwork, a large galley to prepare food for guests, a dining area, a wood-burning stove for heat, a marine head, and cozy bunks for crew and guests. The boat has state-of-the-art navigation and communications equipment.
On deck, however, the masts, booms, sails and rigging are old-school. The masts are white spruce, the boom jaws are white oak; the smaller spars are white cedar. The sails are divided enough that several people can handle the rig. The boat sails well and the shallow draft allows going close to shorelines and to watch wildlife as she "schoons" along. Hugh said that she’s a great example of how a traditionally rigged sailing vessel is still a viable way to get around.
There are a number of modern schooners sailing on the Great Lakes now carrying passengers, for sail training and for educational tours. I look forward to sailing on the Huron Jewel one of these days.