A Floating Museum -- These Classic Schooners Will Survive Into The 21St Century, Thanks To A Few Eccentrics Who See Their Survival As A Noble Calling

DAY ONE, BELLINGHAM Bay: A soft summer southerly swirls off Rosario Strait and fills the sails of our ships. The schooner Martha heels gently to leeward as her 96,000 pounds of hand-crafted hardwood, paint and varnish ease forward. The gentle tug on her helm suggests that this grand 90-year-old vessel is about to take wing, rise off Bellingham Bay and soar toward Neverland.

So begins the first-ever Northwest International Schooner Race, a five-day voyage from Bellingham Bay through the San Juans to Victoria, B.C., where the boats are to be featured at that city's annual Classic Boat Show. Pointing into that fresh breeze, the schooners Zodiac and Martha sail nearly rail-to-rail past Lummi Island to starboard, Vendovi to port. Between deck tasks, crew members cling to the railings, studying the seascape, awed by the spectacle of two sleek, double-masted sailing ships driven by an invisible force.

Today we are two. By week's end, we will be a small fleet of a half-dozen sailing schooners, gliding across space and time.

But for now Robert d'Arcy, master of the Martha, studies the set of his sails. Dissatisfied, he clambers forward, eyes flitting from main to foresail to jib and back again. We watch as he loosens one line a few inches, cranks in another. He nods his satisfaction and glances across 150 feet of whitecap-speckled saltwater to his friend Tim Mehrer, arms folded, rubber boots planted on the stern deck of the good ship Zodiac.

"This," d'Arcy shouts, "is our wind!"

Mehrer grins and shrugs. "Prove it!" he shouts back.

As schooners go, Zodiac is a monster - 160 feet from bowsprit to stern, nearly twice as long as Martha. She flies two and half times more sail area; her mainsail alone is 4,000 square feet, the size of a basketball court. In heavy winds - say 20 to 25 knots - she will make Martha look like a dingy. But in today's gentle 15 knots of August air, the vessels are virtually neck-and-neck.

The course takes us down Bellingham Channel, where we find ourselves in a tacking duel, zigzagging into the wind, sandwiched between Guemes and Cypress islands. At each zig or zag, we scramble from one task to the other, releasing starboard lines, tightening to port, then back again.

For the moment, Martha is sailing faster, but the bigger ship exploits her geometric advantage, closing the gap by sailing higher into the wind. d'Arcy fine-tunes the rigging, trying to keep his bow as close to the wind as he can without spilling wind from the mainsail.

As we emerge from the channel, the wind fades and Martha shoots ahead. Within sight of the Anacortes ferry dock, we declare victory and drop our sails, eagerly awaiting our opportunity to gloat. But Zodiac takes one last tack to the east, sails a half mile and sounds its horn. Via radio, Mehrer announces Martha has failed to cross the finish line.

Zodiac wins Day One. Martha raises a protest flag.

SAFELY RAFTED AT anchor off sleepy Decatur Island, the venerable schooners present a romantic 19th-century profile. Stout masts, spars and vertical rigging are silhouetted against a pink horizon.

The skippers meet at the stern of the Zodiac to debrief, exchange insults and ruminate on the blue-blooded pedigrees of their boats. In a time and place dominated by steel or fiberglass boats that resemble rocket ships, these vessels transport us back in time.

Mehrer is a trim 6-foot-plus with wire-rimmed glasses, salt-and-pepper hair and a remarkably relaxed disposition. He and his father, Karl, are the single biggest reason Seattle has become home to the finest fleet of vintage sailing schooners on the West Coast.

It started innocently enough. As a merchant seaman aboard World War II Liberty ships, Karl Mehrer developed a love for ships and the sea, which soon became an addiction to sawdust, varnish and salt air. In 1960, he rescued the 101-foot schooner Adventuress, which had been rotting on her mooring lines in Lake Union after decades of service ferrying ship pilots to and from freighters in San Francisco Bay. Assisted by his young son, Mehrer spent years restoring that boat, which became a nonprofit organization teaching young people to sail.

In 1975, the Mehrers started over with yet another retired San Francisco pilot boat: the Zodiac. Built in Maine for a pharmaceutical tycoon, the Zodiac sailed in a trans-Atlantic race before being brought to San Francisco during the Depression. The Mehrers brought the dismasted hull north to Lake Union and went to work. A decade later, she had new masts, new sails, gallons of fresh varnish and new life.

The Mehrers spend about seven months of the year sailing the islands under charter to various groups, from senior citizens to software executives. In the process, they have recruited hundreds of volunteers who plan to keep her sailing well into the next century.

DAY TWO, LOPEZ Sound: We weigh anchor and creep into the islands, groping for "light and variable" winds that curl lazily through the channels. Martha is barely moving, driven mostly by an incoming tide; Zodiac appears to be adrift, her massive mainsail sagging like an old man's overcoat.

D'Arcy disappears belowdecks and reappears with a wadded armful of lightweight Dacron - a "gollywobbler," he says. He jerryrigs his secret weapon to the mainmast, running lines back to the cockpit. Martha picks up speed.

By the time we reach Friday Harbor, Zodiac has surrendered and is motoring up from behind. Day Two is Martha's - uncontested.

AGAIN THE EVENING conversation turns to nautical history.

As sailing ships go, the schooner is a recent innovation, something of a democratic compromise refined and perfected by 19th-century New England fishermen.

The Age of Exploration rode square-rigged ships, from Columbus' Santa Maria to Cook's Resolution. The sails were mostly rectangular, hung from horizontal spars attached to the masts. They were big, powerful ships that carried lots of freight. But they also required extensive crews of men to scramble through complicated rigging, furling and unfurling sails. And they were awkward monsters that could not sail into the wind - a huge handicap.

Smaller boats used "sloop" rigs - with sails attached directly to the masts and controlled from the deck. These rigs were fast, easier to sail and pointed as much as 45 degrees into a head wind. But they were too small to carry much freight.

Big square-riggers and small sloops posed a dilemma: To get from A to B, sailors had to choose between a Kenworth truck and a Honda Civic.

Schooners were the compromise. According to legend, the first was the brainstorm of one Andrew Robinson of Gloucester, Mass., who in 1713 built a mid-size vessel with two masts, each with a sloop-like rig. The boat carried more sail and more freight, yet its sails could be raised and handled from the deck, which meant it was maneuverable in small harbors and required fewer crew.

And she was fast; when an onlooker compared the boat to a stone skipping, or "scooning" across the water, Robinson declared: "A schooner she is!"

The story may be apocryphal, but the schooner's sailing virtues were quite real. By the mid-19th century, graceful two-masted schooners dominated the New England fishing fleet, with 301 ships sailing out of Gloucester alone.

"For the Grand Banks fishermen, it was economics," d'Arcy says. "They were carrying a commodity that spoils, so time was money. Being able to sail to weather was critical, especially when they were beating home into a stiff Nor'wester."

During the California Gold Rush, scores of fishing schooners were hastily refitted to carry miners and goods around the Cape to San Francisco. The same ships were ideal for the coastal trade, carrying Northwest timber from Puget Sound to California. Still later, many of those ships were converted for cod fishing in the Bering Sea.

It was a tough life for even the sturdiest of ships. The three-masted schooner Wawona, a longtime fixture at South Lake Union, is one of the last survivors.

DAY THREE, SAN Juan Channel: Mother Nature mocks us, sending a morning breeze that promises fine sailing, then dousing it to typical August airs - no wind at all. We drift on a mirror-like channel, admiring each other's boats as reflected on the surface.

But our fleet is growing. Alcyone, a relatively new schooner built with classic lines, shows up. Then Barlovento, a sleek, modern schooner that is ready to rumble.

Eventually we drop sails and motor into Roche Harbor, where four schooners anchor alongside each other. Crew members scramble over the rails to explore the neighbors' quarters, or into skiffs to catch a rare glimpse of 200 years of nautical tradition.

WHILE MOST SCHOONERS were built for fishing or freight, the finest specimens, including both the Zodiac and Martha, were built for the pleasure of people with lots of money.

Martha was designed and built in San Francisco for John R. Hanify, a California lumber tycoon and commodore of the San Francisco Yacht Club. Since its launching in 1907, mere months after the great earthquake, it has had some 20 owners - most notably Hollywood star James Cagney, whose signed tribute to the schooner is framed below decks. Later it was brought to Puget Sound by industrialist Edgar Kaiser, who eventually donated it to an Orcas Island summer camp.

In 1976, the boat tumbled off a cradle while being hauled out at a Seattle boat yard, and was written off as a total loss. But it was rescued by an Olympia couple, Del and Paulette Edgbert, who spent two years repairing the smashed hull, then sailed it as far as San Francisco and Alaska. In 1993, it was picked by Sea magazine as one of the 25 top classics in the West, and by Sail magazine as one of the 100 finest sailing yachts on the continent.

When the boat became too much for them, the Edgberts passed it on to the Northwest Schooner Society, which created the Schooner Martha Foundation.

And that's how d'Arcy became "Capt. d'Arcy."

DAY FOUR, STUART Island: Still no wind. We flee the bright lights of Roche Harbor, drift a couple of hours on a glassy channel, then motor to Stuart Island. No race today; instead, we explore Stuart's trails that wind through groves of old-growth fir and Madrona trees.

D'ARCY IS A WIRY Rhode Islander with a clean-shaved head, full goatee and a silver earring. Like Mehrer, he inherited his yen for the sailing ships; his father and grandfather were boat builders. Armed with those skills, he worked five years at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut's outstanding maritime museum.

"Eventually I decided to get out of it," he says. "I got into windsurfing and mountain bikes."

Two years ago, he drove into a parking lot in Federal Way and met JoAnn O'Connor, a longtime Zodiac volunteer who supports her habit by managing a local office. O'Connor lured d'Arcy to the Mehrers and the Zodiac and the rest is history. O'Connor and d'Arcy have been designated official caretakers of the Martha; they've found each other and their ship, all in the same parking lot.

DAY FIVE, HARO Strait: After a windless morning, a midday breeze carries us into a maritime circus. A half-dozen or so purse-seine boats are setting their nets on Stuart Island's south shore, trying to snag a netful of migrating sockeye salmon. Huge diesel engines and hydraulics echo across the channel.

Meanwhile, a pod of killer whales makes an appearance, hungrily chasing the same prey. Close behind comes a fleet of power boats, each carrying a dozen or so paying whale watchers in matching orange or red float suits. The result is a parody of the Law of the Jungle, with small fish chasing big fish. All parties, except the whales, pause for a few minutes to take snapshots of the passing schooners, then resume the feeding frenzy.

Barlovento catches a fresh northerly, pops its lightweight spinnaker and quickly sails south into the mist. Zodiac forges ahead of Martha until the wind subsides. We pass her to windward, mocking the Zodiac crew with a kazoo-band rendition of the William Tell Overture.

Be it bad music or bad form, our antics anger the sea gods; the wind dies, leaving Zodiac and Martha at the mercy of a stiff incoming tide, pushing us backward toward the frenzy at Stuart Island.

Finally, late in the afternoon, we all surrender, drop our sails and motor into Victoria, where we moor rail-to-rail in front of the grand Empress Hotel - a fitting conclusion to an anti-climactic race.

BUT NEVER MIND. THIS race was not about speed, nor competition. "In a sailing race, we aren't competing with each other," d'Arcy says. "We are all competing with the elements - winds and tides and currents."

Technically, Martha is the winner. But in reality, the trophy should have gone to Mother Nature, who won three of the five legs.

While an Irish band spins a merry reel from the dock, the skippers and crew retire to the elegant, teak-lined salon of the Martha, savoring a bottle of decent merlot and a bowl of O'Connor's favorite pasta - equal parts noodles and garlic.

Wind or no wind, it has been an extraordinary week, a casual voyage through a fast-disappearing world of low technology and high art. These are the last of a long line of vessels that served mankind well for centuries - until they were rudely displaced by things that go vroom-vroom. That these classic boats will survive into the 21st century is a tribute to a few eccentrics like d'Arcy, O'Connor, Tim and Carl Mehrer, who see their survival as a noble calling.

Nobody here expects to make money by sailing old boats. Nobody discusses labor, the low pay, the lack of health benefits.

"This is not about money," says O'Connor. "It's about people living their dreams."

But Mehrer also feels a powerful sense of responsibility for the boats.

"When I work on these boats, I'm constantly reminded that I am just one link in a chain of people," he says. "I'm just a temporary caretaker, and I take that job very seriously."

He's not alone. Six boats have signed up for the 1998 schooner race, Bellingham to Victoria from Aug. 30 to Sept. 3. By August, the fleet may grow to 10 or more - including the Adventuress and the Pride of Baltimore, recently built replica of the Chesapeake classic. Each of these schooners has its impassioned cadre of d'Arcys and O'Connors, people committed to the survival of a fine, old boat.

And why do they do this? Mehrer has spent most his adult life restoring and sailing these boats, and he has a tough time explaining it. "It takes me back to a time when time didn't matter," he says. "That's always seemed a worthwhile thing to do."

Ross Anderson is a reporter for The Seattle Times. ------------------------------- Schooner: The Largets Sailing Vessel

To most of us, a sailboat is a sailboat.

To the purists, there are sloops and yawls, cutters and ketches, schooners and windjammers - and don't you dare confuse one with the next because no two vessels are alike.

Reality, of course, is somewhere in between.

Schooners are the largest sailing vessels one is likely to see on Puget Sound. They range from about 40 to 160 feet, usually with a low-slung hull rising to a high bow and a long bowsprit.

They have two masts, with the rear mast being taller and stouter than the forward. Most schooners are gaff-rigged, with the principal sails attached to the mast and to horizontal spars - boom on the bottom and gaff at the top. That configuration allows a schooner to fly an enormous amount of sail area.

For some 200 years, schooners were used for coastal trade and for fishing. Since the turn of the century, they have been built mostly as sailing yachts, many of them for charter. Puget Sound is home port to dozens of schooners, large and small. Several are available for charter, including:

Zodiac: The largest of the local schooners is privately operated and caters mostly to groups of about 20, but will charter to individuals for this year's schooner race. Phone: 206-325-6122.

Martha: A nonprofit that takes groups up to six. Phone: 253-941-6324.

Adventuress: A 101-foot beauty based in Port Townsend. Nonprofit Sound Experience deals mostly with youth groups, but also does occasional charters. Phone: 360-379-0438.

Alcyone: A privately owned 65-footer based in Port Townsend, takes up to six passengers. Phone: 360-385-7646.