The schooner Virginia offers students and tourists the chance to experience a vital piece of maritime history.
by Eric J. Wallace
The morning finds Erik Lohse steering Nauticus’s 122-foot-long historic sailboat, the schooner Virginia, toward the confluence of the James and Elizabeth rivers. The 39-year-old captain calls orders to a crew of about 16 volunteers, which are then relayed by the only other paid staffer, first mate Corey Roy.
The goal is to hoist the boat’s eight sails up two 120-foot-tall masts before the ship reaches the Chesapeake Bay. Sounds simple, but it is an incredibly arduous task, requiring teamwork and lots of physical labor.
The schooner is a replica of a 1916 wooden vessel; its mission is educational, so the crew has to use period-correct pullies and ropes to do the job. It takes about three hours to raise the massive sails. “There’s a reason Popeye had all those muscles,” Lohse says, laughing.
In a Sail Nauticus T-shirt and seersucker shorts, he seems a man ready to relax, but in truth Lohse and his crew are preparing to compete in the annual Cape Charles Cup, a prestigious event in which they join 120 sailboats and two other schooners from all over to race across the Chesapeake Bay from the mouth of Little Creek in Virginia Beach to Oyster Farm Marina in Cape Charles.
In 2017, Lohse helped the schooner beat 20 of the best tall-ship sailing vessels in the U.S. with a record-setting win at the 140-plus-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. But this trip is more about education and celebrating Virginia’s maritime heritage and sailing community.
The schooner is the flagship for the Sail Nauticus educational sailing program. Lohse works with about 100 formal volunteers on the boat each year. Some pitch in for a few evenings, while others are weekly staples. They help Lohse and Roy maintain the ship and introduce hundreds of kids to sailing every year.
But race-day spots are reserved for especially devoted volunteers, all of whom come from diverse backgrounds. There’s a Norfolk teacher, a caterer and restaurateur based on the Eastern Shore, an engineer from Newport News Shipbuilding, a nuclear physicist from Holland. Most were attracted by the boat’s history and the opportunity to learn about sailing; the mission of Sail Nauticus kept them coming back.
Then there’s 72-year-old Al Ponessa, a retired Navy submariner who took up sailing in his 20s.
“I have sloops down pat, but this is a different animal,” Ponessa says. Smaller boats can be managed alone and react quickly. But the schooner weighs 100 tons, so things take longer. “The captain’s giving orders way ahead of time and you’re working with 12-20 people to carry them out,” says Ponessa. “Sure, the basic physics are the same. But the rigging is so complicated, and the boat is so big, it takes a while to grasp how it all works together.”
The Cape Charles event is special for another reason. Following the race, the crew docks in the town harbor for about a week. They sleep onboard and offer daily public deck tours for free and group sailing experiences – including sunset cruises – for $50 a person.
Cape Charles’ proximity to the Atlantic and the Eastern Shore’s array of wild barrier islands pair with the schooner for a world-class experience. Sunset trips typically last a few hours. Participants are encouraged to bring their own beverages and picnic dinners – and to lend a hand.
“You don’t have to help out, but we tell anybody that’s curious to jump on in,” Roy says. “I mean, where else can you hang out on a boat like this, learn about sailing firsthand and catch these kinds of views?”
There are just 450 registered historical schooners in the U.S. and Canada. Few are owned privately because the boats are so expensive. The schooner Virginia cost about $5 million to build, and maintenance and operating costs often run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Most large schooners belong to small museums and preservation organizations, and are sailed only on special occasions.
Lohse was born into the business. His mom, Jean Preckel, was a sailing enthusiast and built boat models professionally. His dad, Greg, was an oceanographer and captained tall ships for the Sea Education Association. The family lived on the Eastern Shore, and life revolved around sailing. “I think I was 2 days old the first time they took me out,” Lohse says.
By high school graduation, he’d sailed everywhere from Maine to the Caribbean. Lohse didn’t pursue sailing as a profession, though. Instead, he moved to Chicago and became a woodworker. A change of heart came in 2002 when Laura showed him a model of the schooner Virginia that she made for a nonprofit hoping to rebuild the boat. “I saw it and said, ‘If they pull this off, I’m gonna be the guy that sails her,’” he says. “The boat was beautiful and, moreover, it was a potent symbol.”
Schooners were an innovation born in colonial America. While ships with square-rigged sails were great for catching trade winds on trans-Atlantic journeys, they fared poorly in coastal conditions. The first true schooners were developed in Massachusetts around 1713 to solve the problem. Their maneuverability, speed and ability to navigate in shallower waters facilitated coastal trade, and they quickly became the continent’s most important ships.
The schooner Virginia has local significance as well. The original boat was commissioned by the Virginia Pilot Association in 1916 and was the organization’s last sailing vessel. Tasked with certifying area pilots, the president of the now 150-year-old organization thought a large racing schooner would be the ultimate tool for training apprentices. And he wanted it to be a flagship that embodied the rich maritime history of Hampton Roads. He subsequently had the Virginia modeled after contemporary America’s Cup competitors – the Vanderbilt family’s 1895 winner, the Defender, in particular.
Lohse returned to Hampton Roads to work on his dad’s newly purchased 105-foot schooner, the Alliance, in 2005 – a year after the completion of the schooner Virginia. He started out as a deckhand on daily tours near Yorktown and helped with occasional offshore cruises. Two years later, he was a certified captain.
“I was doing all this with an eye toward the schooner Virginia,” Lohse says. He began sitting in as a captain in 2008. “They’d ask me to do a couple of weeks here and there. I might sail down to the Bahamas or Charleston, South Carolina, or go up to Portland, Maine. But then it was always back to Yorktown and the Alliance.”
In 2012 Lohse was asked to come onboard full-time. He helped found Sail Nauticus – and integrate the schooner into its programming – when the Nauticus Foundation bought the boat in 2014.
Whether it’s on trips across the Chesapeake Bay or tours around Cape Charles, the schooner is a magnet for other boaters. Sloops, jet skis, speedboats and charter fishing vessels are constantly pulling alongside or lingering just behind the ship. Their passengers admire the beautiful old vessel, waving, shouting questions and snapping photos.
“Tourist duty,” Lohse says to volunteer crewman Hannah Twiddy, nodding at a catamaran from his post at the wheel. “You can’t fault someone for being drawn to the best-looking boat on the water.”
Twiddy laughs and goes skipping to the stern. Leaning over the railing, she talks with the boaters and invites them to the Cape Charles Town Marina for a deck tour. A native of the town, the 20-something grew up sailing and has been volunteering on the schooner for a few years now. Encouraged by Lohse, she launched the Cape Charles Sailing Camp in June.
“The schooner has a special kind of magic,” Twiddy says. “Sailing on her makes you feel like you’re a part of the region’s history. The more time you spend onboard, the more attached you become. She really starts to feel like a second home.”