Under a sunny sky filled with fluffy, regal clouds, they sailed along the Gulf Stream near Florida. It was the same course as last year so the scent of fresh salt water and the warm tropical breeze evoked a familiarity among most of the crew. As the schooner cut through the rough Gulf waters, waves hammered against the gangway of the ship and rolled over the deck, tossing mist into the humid air, which generally acted as a better air conditioner than the ones the crew left back home in Milwaukee.
It was a glorious day, one that reminded them of why they truly love the open sea and sailing upon it. By midnight, though, the weather turned ferocious, kicking up eight-foot waves that engulfed the schooner and began to submerge its wooden deck. It’s hard to believe that only a few hours before, the deck provided a place for students to relax or study the ocean, or learn how to help set the sails, coil the lines and steer the ship.
At that moment, however, no one was relaxing – the ship was sinking! Without hesitation, the schooner’s brave crew worked with conviction, hand pumping the six feet of water on deck as other shipmates successfully rescued three men whose boat had been swallowed by waves and dark waters. Later, this night went down in history as the vessel’s most exciting journey.
This was an actual account from Captain Hugh Covert of the S/V Denis Sullivan that I read at ExpressMilwaukee.com. Sure, I dramatized it a bit, but clearly sailing the open sea isn’t a walk in the park – it definitely is an adventure! That’s why after hearing a thrilling story like that, I was even more eager to see the Great Lakes schooner up close and in person at Discovery World.
A few Saturdays ago, on a day reminiscent of that winter voyage along the Gulf Stream, I joined thousands of excited people at Discovery World to celebrate the Denis Sullivan’s official arrival at its summer port at Pier Wisconsin. The homecoming had the prospect of being a grandiose gala; unfortunately, it was forced to end abruptly due to inclement weather.
Eric and I arrived exactly at 3 p.m., parked in Discovery World’s underground garage and signed in at a long table centered on the lengthy promenade. Here we were given a wrist band for access to all of Discovery World, along with a food voucher, and then we aimlessly wandered around not really knowing what was in store for us.
We joined the group outside and gaped around at the set-up. At this time, caterers were still organizing food and drink stations while groups of people awaited the ship’s arrival. Folks occupied dozens of round tables that were covered in white linens and spread across the pier in front of the live band that was playing classic rock covers and creating a festival-like atmosphere.
By this time the temperature had dropped almost twenty degrees and menacing clouds began to cast a large, daunting shadow over the lakefront. I was chilled to the bone from the strong wind and forty-something degree temps – I hadn’t thought to bring a jacket when I left Eric’s place around 2 p.m. since we had been swimming and sunbathing earlier that day. Thus, we decided to head back inside to revisit the aquarium and to kill some time before the arrival of the schooner just an hour later.
Just as soon as we came back upstairs, the Denis Sullivan could be seen in the distance coming closer and closer. The ship looked quite majestic as its mammoth sails billowed on the blue, blue water of Lake Michigan. It was lead by a speedy fire boat that sprayed regurgitated lake water from its stern and bow and twirled around to rouse the droves of spectator. There was no announcement of the schooner’s approach, but everyone noticed anyway. Well-wishers gathered all throughout Discovery World and we followed en masse out the door and onto the deck while the luckiest guests enjoyed the lovely 360-degree view of the lake and downtown at the top of the VIP Pilot House.
When the flagship docked, we circled around the museum and settled in on the wooden arena-style seats to listen to the orations and introductions of the crew who traveled aboard the Denis Sullivan down south all winter-long. Next, everyone was welcomed to tour the vessel, so Eric and I jumped to our feet and scurried toward the line, which moved rather quickly. As we waited, I looked up at the ship’s three masts that towered over us and recalled how the Denis Sullivan is the only three-mast schooner that currently travels and that there are only six to eight Great Lakes schooners left. Then, it was our turn to climb aboard!
While onboard, we weaved around the 98-foot deck, looking at its 10 sails and smooth wooden wheel. We got to peek down into the area where the crew lives, eats, sleeps and works and we also were allowed to descend into the navigation area where we saw the technical equipment and gadgets that are used to steer the ship. Like two giddy children, we poked and prodded at the anchor and the many ropes wrapped around various posts, and we snapped countless photos.
The best part about being on the ship was the opportunity to chat with members of the crew. By talking to several sailors, we learned that the Denis Sullivan was hand-built over a five-year period using techniques from the 1860s. The ship was built after the Moonlight, a Great Lakes schooner from 1874 to 1905 that was captained by Denis Sullivan and whose home port was Milwaukee.
Alas, the constant surge of curious visitors limited us to only 10 or 15 minutes to explore the ship’s nooks and crannies. I wished we had more time and I certainly wished that we would have been able to set sail. Nevertheless, it was still cool to just stand onboard amid all of the Denis Sullivan’s glory. Jealous? You can take a virtual tour by clicking here.
Eventually, Eric and I went back inside Discovery World to warm up. Evidently, everyone else had the same idea – the place was brimming with families trying to keep out of the cold. Just like Captain Hugh Covert’s story, before Mother Nature opened a can of whoop-ass on downtown Milwaukee there were bright blue skies and enough humidity to make my hair curl. And just like that, we were amid a monsoon!
Moments later, I noticed droves of people heading downstairs and into the parking garage. Did I miss something? Puzzled, I scanned the room and noticed several Discovery World employees with headsets on, motioning people toward the stairwell. Apparently, a tornado warning was issued for our area, so we reluctantly proceeded to the garage. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Discovery World isn’t an ideal place to be during a twister – most of it is made up of floor to ceiling windows!
Safe and secure downstairs, guests noshed on hamburgers and brats while others opened bag chairs and patiently waited for the “okay.” Meanwhile, Eric and I sat in my car and listened to the weather report on the radio. A museum employee pushed a cart around that was carrying pitchers of water and she handed out cups to people loitering the garage. She came over to us and asked if we were okay and then joked, “No making out in there, you two!” At least people were making light of the situation and still having fun.
Since the tornado scare forced us to take immediate shelter, we still didn’t have a chance to score some grub. I could tell the staff dishing up the picnic fare was a little perturbed since they had to keep closing down and reopen. It's not like we were banking on this kind or weather, so get over it! Seriously.
Eric and I rushed over to one of the stations that had moved to the promenade. We were the second group in line, so we were pretty okay with waiting as they restocked the food – a guy had to go back and forth from the Compass Room (where their food was stored) to each station with more food over and over again. Knowing that we had been waiting there for about five minutes before the rest of the line formed, a young lady took our order and began serving us. On the menu was the choice of a hamburger, brat or hot dog, chips or potato salad, two types of cookies, and lemonade.
With a plastic plate overflowing with chow, we moved to the cafeteria tables adjacent to the wave machine and sat near two kids who were waiting for a women dressed as a pirate to make them a parrot balloon and attach it to their T-shirt. Eric and I passed up the balloon animals and just munched on our dinner as we peered out the expansive windows at the tables that had been blown over by the hurricane-ish winds. The sky still was an ominous shade of green and the rain continued to drum the deck as thunder rattled the building. I was waiting for the locusts next.
Soon after we finished our dogs, we were corralled and sent back down to the parking garage for the second time. We decided that once the people in charge let everyone back up to the main museum, we’d head home since the event was pretty much canceled at this point anyway.
Despite the undesirable weather conditions, the homecoming gala was a great experience and definitely made for some great stories! I’m already anticipating my next opportunity to get onboard the Denis Sullivan, perhaps sailing across Lake Michigan.
On our drive home, we dodged spraying drains and enormous puddles that had consumed the roadways. Looking at the flood, I thought back on the tales of the S/V Denis Sullivan navigating the open sea and how amazing it must be to sail on it, even on a day like this... just them, the boat, and the water stretched as far as the eye can see.