Suggested Trip

The Schooner Sultana: A Marvelous Sail Back to Colonial America


It was a very sultry morning in historic Chestertown. We quickly parked our car in the lot adjacent to the marina, grabbed our gear and headed toward the imposing vessel on which we would be sailing for the next two hours. This would be the first public sail in three months for Sultana, since the majority of the summer sees the schooner utilized as a floating classroom under the auspices of Sultana Education Foudation.

Through this program, approximately 5,000 students in the Chesapeake region get to travel back to the “Age of Sail,” participating in everything from raising sails and steering the ship, to sampling marine life and conducting tests to monitor water quality. This hands-on education helps promote stewardship of the Chesapeake Bay’s historic, cultural and environmental legacy. It’s rewarding to see how many of our young adults are able to benefit from this program.

As we reached the end of the pier, we were greeted by Captain Aaron and invited to board Sultana, a perfect replica of the 1768 British Royal Navy’s ship of the same name.

The rest of the crew of four heartily welcomed everyone, making sure that children under 12 were outfitted in life jackets. Once the remaining passengers had boarded – along with captain and crew – we now reached full capacity. Given the somewhat tight quarters, and openings simply secured by a rope, I quickly understood why no children under five are permitted to sail.

Katie, one of the very knowledgeable members of our crew, was designated to provide the vast majority of information while we were on the main deck – the busiest of Sultana’s four decks. Her enthusiasm was contagious as she encouraged all to help move our group to the starboard side of the ship so that we wouldn’t interfere with the crew’s intricate dance of casting off and getting underway.

Once the auxiliary engine was fired up and the captain took his position behind the seven-foot tiller, we started making our way up the serene Chester River.

Katie took this opportunity to give a brief history of the original Sultana and how this exact replica came about. Although built in Boston in 1767, it sailed across the North Atlantic to the Royal Navy Yard in England, where it was thoroughly surveyed and deemed perfect for enforcing the newly enacted Townsend Acts, which imposed duties on tea and many other commodities imported by the American colonists. The survey draught filed in 1768 was one of the most complete recordings of an American schooner built prior to the Revolutionary War. The current vessel’s reproduction is exactly based upon these drawings, making it one of the most accurate 18th century replicas in the world today. The new Sultana was commissioned on July 4, 2001, after two-and-a-half years of construction.

We had booked our trip on Sultana’s Ecology Sail, which leaves promptly at 11:00 am on the days it is offered. In addition to helping raise the sails on all trips out, passengers on these tours are encouraged to assist in dropping the 20-foot-wide otter trawl net that drags along the river floor, catching some of the plentiful creatures that inhabit the Chester River. Once raised, the crew carefully removed the contents and placed them in a tank filled with river water to keep them alive. The youngsters on the trip were excited to help out and learn more about the many river catfish, clams, perch, spot, and hogchokers that were caught.

When it was time to raise the sails, the call went out for extra hands. Enthusiastic volunteers queued up to start tugging when the captain called out the commands. Katie explained the sails being raised today were the topsail, staysail, mainsail and foresail. Knowing very little about the mechanics of sailing, I moved away and let the others adeptly pull the lines until all sails were unfurled and catching what little wind there was this mid-August day.

While we slowly made our way up the Chester River, Ruth Anne and Aldo called us aft to demonstrate one of the four swivel guns – or small cannons – mounted on posts on the quarter deck.

Traditionally, the ship carried eight cannons, with four additional affixed to the fore deck. They were used as anti-personnel weapons while the ship patrolled the Atlantic coast searching for contraband cargo and collecting the much-despised taxes levied on colonial Americans. We were all enthralled when Ruth Anne began showing us how to clean and load one of the fully operational cannons and then announced it would be shot for us. Now they really had the kids’ attention. We were warned to tightly cover our ears as Ruth Anne lit the fuse. And then… BOOM!!! A sound so loud you could feel it reverberate in your chest! Nervous laughter immediately filled the decks.

Next on the agenda, Aldo asked who would like to go below and tour the crew quarters. It was an extremely hot and muggy day and he warned it would be even warmer below deck, but ten of us rose to the occasion and carefully climbed down the ladder.

In keeping with the original Sultana, the layout has been recreated to be as authentic and have as few alterations as possible. We began in the lieutenant’s cabin, the living quarters for the vessel’s original commander, Lieutenant Inglis. It seemed cramped to us, but also provided space for a small desk where navigation was performed. It was also the only space on the schooner that had windows. Two additional tiny, but private, cabins were for the surgeon and master.

The men’s cabin is where up to twenty-three able-bodied seamen slept in enclosed bunks. Two crew members shared each one – when one sailor was finished, the other crawled into the still warm bed – lending to it the title “hot bunking.”

The galley and galley stove, while extremely accurate reproductions, were retrofitted to include a refrigerator, sink and gas stove.

As our tour came to its end, everyone couldn’t thank the Captain and crew enough for conducting such a fun and informative trip. I can’t wait until my grandchildren are old enough for me to experience it all again through their eyes!

A few tips. Wear comfortable, flat-soled, non-skid shoes. Take advantage of the ability to bring a backpack or bag with some snacks for the kids and cold drinks for all of you – they have two large containers of ice water but they cannot always be accessed and on a hot day you really need the hydration. Parking is conveniently next to the pier – a huge plus. In addition to the Ecology Sail, Sultana has other sailing opportunities, including a full-day sail.

Sultana’s Downrigging Weekend, held every fall, is an area-wide celebration with tall ships and bluegrass music you don’t want to miss.

Sultana Education Foundation

The Sultana Education Foundation offers a diverse variety of history and science-based field programs serving students and teachers throughout Maryland and beyond.

Debbie Brown Driscoll

Debbie Brown Driscoll is a freelance writer and retired PR consultant. She grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but has called Annapolis, Maryland home for more than 20 years. Her passion is visiting and writing about the history and happenings in the Chesapeake Bay area.

August 23, 2019

Main image: Raising the sails on schooner Sultana. Debra Driscoll photo.
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