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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Sailor’s Life

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One by one, the three sails of the historic Denis Sullivan are released to begin a sunset cruise for Capt. Hugh Covert and his six-man crew. This Great Lakes schooner, which resides in port at Discovery World from May through October, is both home and work for Capt. Covert, who was named senior captain in 2007. Living on a “tall ship” built entirely by hand is second nature to Covert, who began sailing at the age of 3 on the Ohio River in Kentucky. As the huge sails billow on Lake Michigan, the captain shares stories about the S/V Denis Sullivan.

How did the ship come to be named?One of the ships the Denis Sullivan is designed after is the Moonlight, a Great Lakes schooner from 1874 to 1903 that was captained by Denis Sullivan, and whose home port was Milwaukee. His greatgrandson made the first big donation to fund building the ship, and had the naming rights. But Northwestern Mutual Life, Harley-Davidson and North Sails all funded contributions to this ship that is now valued at about $4 million.

What makes this historical schooner a great sailing vessel?
There are only six to eight Great Lakes schooners of any note left, and the Denis Sullivan is the only three-mast schooner that travels. It was built using techniques from the 1860s, 137 feet long, and all hand-built over five years. The crew works, lives, eats and sleeps on ship, and it has great educational programming.

What type of educational programming is the S/V Denis Sullivan used for?
We work around the science programming for Milwaukee Public Schools. Sometimes it’s half-day trips for third- or fourth-graders. Usually urban high school kids who have never been outside of Milwaukee take a two-week cruise that involves science and education. The two-week trips can really change their lives. They gain a sense of responsibility they may have never had before, being away from cell phones, computers and televisions. It’s just them, the boat and the stars.

What was the most exciting trip the S/V Denis Sullivan has made?
Definitely last year—March 21, 2007— around midnight in the Gulf Stream near Florida, where we sail in the winter. We hit an incredibly bad storm with sometimes 8-foot waves. We were sinking and had students aboard. But we hand-pumped the 6 feet of water on deck and rescued three men out of the water whose boat had sunk. Scott Hooper, one of our crew-members, jumped in to save them and received the Silver Lifesaving Medal from the U.S. Coast Guard, similar to the Silver Star in the armed services. The Denis Sullivan received a medal as well, for meritorious service.

Are you ready for another season of sailing on Milwaukee’s lakefront?
I’m always ready to sail, but I don’t ever need to see another night like March 21. As a captain, one experience like that is enough.

The Sullivan’s June 7 homecoming to its port at Discovery World will be marked by a celebration throughout the facility. Live music, food, children’s activities, tours and much more will be available between 3 and 7 p.m. For ticket prices and information, call (414) 765-9966 or go to www.discoveryworld.org.

Capt. Hugh Covert | Photo by Corey Hengen