Sailing on The Two-Masted Schooner Pioneer

The Scottish term “to scoon” means to skim along the water.

From 1850 through the early 1900s, schooners (the foremast shorter than the mainmast), with no fuel costs, no engines or fuel taking up valuable cargo space, carried goods between coastal towns. The Pioneer (102 feet tip to tip) was built to carry sand mined near Delaware Bay to an iron foundry in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was the first of only two iron-hulled cargo ships and is the only one still in existence. In 1966, the ship was sold to Russell Grinnel Jr. of Gloucester, Massachusetts who restored the rig and rebuilt the hull with steel plating, leaving its iron frame intact. Grinnel left her to South Street Seaport upon his death.

(Photo by Richard Bowditch)

Today, Pioneer represents living history. Maritime skills, New York harbor’s history, and marine ecology are some of the things taught onboard to visitors and volunteers May through October. Participate by helping raise a halyard – a line which is used to haul sails, flags, or spars. (Tasks are designated for adults or children.) Or just enjoy the two hour sail through New York Harbor, past Governors Island and The Statue of Liberty with unique views of the Manhattan skyline and whatever else is on the water that day. Opportunities for photos are constant.

On a pretty day (or sunset sail) the trip is literally a breath of fresh air. Afloat and out of context, it’s easy to let one’s thoughts wander freely. City tension relaxes. Hold someone’s hand, experience the Oz-look of Manhattan Island through the eyes of a child, tell a story about early New York.

Our trip carried forty passengers – who found seating willy-nilly on deck – and six crew members. I spoke to trainee Alex Berman who loves sailing, is great with kids, and knows enough about her work to answer questions. As she’s still in school, Berman has no idea how her penchant for the water will fit into the future, but she’s sure it will. Alex is smallish and wirey, yet pulls and coils rope as if half again as physically substantial. She snaps to when orders are called out.

Giselle Hart (Photo by Alix Cohen)

Giselle Hart , a professional crew member, is calling orders. “I grew up around the ocean in Boston, not sailing though, that came later – to stay near water. I’ve been sailing boats like this for about six years in Maine, the Northwest… there are dozens of schooners, some newly built, some preserved over time.” You can see the pleasure Giselle takes in her job. Her movements are sure. She’s alert to sun and wind, basking in both, with a peripheral traveling eye on passengers; very much in her element.

David Sheldon is a twenty-year part-timer. He calls himself a “boat slut”, loving where he is at least a much as Gabrielle. “What if it rains?” I ask. “We won’t go out if it’s raining. Wind is not that much of a problem, though, sails can be adjusted; it’s like shifting gears. Pioneer is a very stable boat with a big flat bottom.” David is steady and nimble. He walks as if the boat weren’t moving, climbs, and hauls sail with fluency and grace. “If we didn’t tip/keel, we wouldn’t be able to turn,” he explains after a wake reaction to a passing boat. (Birds have a keel bone.) He exults in sparking water, white clouds, and the feel of spray.

David Sheldon (Photo by Alix Cohen)

Captain Malcolm Martin hails from Boston but was indirectly drawn to boats through science and mammal behavior – whales, in particular – after college. By the time he got to New York, he was already an accredited captain. “One day in 1995, I wandered down to pier 16, saw the boat and asked if I could help. They handed me a chipping hammer.” He is, to date, the longest serving captain on Pioneer.

The trainee program is one of Malcolm’s passions. “There’s nothing better than starting with someone who doesn’t know the front of the boat from the back, then watching them anticipate what has to be done. Think of the phrase ‘learning the ropes.’ Skills are handed down from person to person.”

Statue of Liberty (Photo by Alix Cohen)

No experience is necessary. Students of all ages and walks of life, hobbyists, water lovers and those headed into the profession, are taught history, knot-tieing, navigation, sail handling and “boat husbandry” = maintenance. The captain calls it “a unifying activity.” Volunteers learn to work with and trust one another as well as self reliance, skills that are essential elsewhere. “You need your shipmates to function; teamwork must be coordinated.”

A man who recently charted Pioneer for his family had been a troubled teenager when he took part in the Marine School program formerly run by the Seaport. He kept repeating how much the experience changed his life. (The more comprehensive curriculum involved taking the boat out for weeks. Malcolm hopes to bring this back.) School charters show kids that the harbor is alive with marine life by special permit fishing with everything returned to the water, “mostly no worse for wear.”

Captain Martin (Photo by Richard Bowditch)

At a roundtable meeting of Tall Ships America, Malcolm identified himself as captain of Pioneer only to discover more than half those present had been trainees here. (A tall ship is a sailing vessel with a fairly good sized mast rigged in traditional 19th-early 20th century manner.)

Schooling begins with two four-hour, morning, instruction sails. These are followed by a conversation – what did the person get out of it, does he/she want to continue? If going further is the choice, a drug test is professionally administered as per Coast Guard dictates. This costs about $45, but is the ONLY cost to a student who may continue for years if desired. In exchange, each trainee puts in time as crew on Pioneer.

(Photo by Richard Bowditch)

I comment that despite constant handling of thick ropes I saw no use of gloves. “Gloves can get caught on things,” Malcolm tells me. “They’re meant to protect you from friction. We spend a great deal of time seeing that doesn’t happen. Gloves are a crutch, a way of doing things more casually. You quickly develop hardened surface on your hands, the hands of a sailor. It just takes practice.”

Captain Martin finds what he does immensely gratifying. He’s sailed other parts of the world but is admittedly enamored of “the beauty of the place we live in and I get to sail in.” The 137 year-old Pioneer is used for what it was designed to do – sail — not be displayed somewhere behind ropes. It’s living history.

Ninety minute and three hour educational trips are available for schools, groups, and camps. Students help raise sail, then conduct experiments in science, history, ecology, navigation, and the arts. All programs are customized. Pioneer also offers team building and corporate reset sails

(Photo by Alix Cohen)

Training, school programs and charters can be found here:

There’s no food or drink aboard Pioneer, but you’re welcome to bring some. Rocking and space limitation dictate it be nothing elaborate. One needs to walk a gangway and step over the side so rubber-soled shoes are suggested. Advance reservations can be made online. Check in (at the table for the docked Wavertree) at least fifteen minutes before the tour to receive boarding passes. Advance ticket sales:

Opening Photo by Richard Bowditch

Founded in 1967, The South Street Seaport Museum houses an extensive collection of works of art and artifacts, a maritime reference library, exhibition galleries and education spaces, working nineteenth century print shops, and an active fleet of historic vessels that all work to tell the story of Where New York Begins.

About Alix Cohen (1350 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.