If you’ve ever wanted to take to the sea in a century-old vessel, now is your chance.
The Suva, a 1920s-era schooner that has become a symbol of Whidbey’s maritime heritage in recent years, is in need of volunteers to crew the boat during sailing season this summer.
The Whidbey Island Maritime Heritage Foundation, which owns the Suva, runs tours in Penn Cove and the waters surrounding Whidbey in May through October. The boat returned to Whidbey in 2015 after spending decades at other Puget Sound ports, and the foundation had it certified for commercial sailings in 2017.
Volunteer crew members perform essential sailing functions and maintain the safety of the vessel and passengers during the voyage, but according to Gene Reynolds, one of the Suva’s four captains, the crew’s job extends beyond regular deckhand tasks.
“In addition to teaching our crew members how to tie a knot and raise a sail, we also want to teach them the narrative, the history of what we’re trying to promote,” Reynolds said.
The foundation’s mission is to promote the maritime heritage of Whidbey Island and Penn Cove through education. Excursions aboard the Suva are meant to be “a sail back in time,” Reynolds said. To that end, crew members are more than deckhands; they are also tour guides, naturalists and cruise directors.
Every passenger who comes aboard the Suva will not only enjoy a two-hour sail, but will also learn about the history of Coupeville and the ecology of Penn Cove. Passengers may even try their hand at steering the 98-year-old schooner.
“When someone buys a ticket on Suva, we want it to be more than just a boat ride,” Reynolds said.
Crew training takes place regularly throughout the season. Prospective crew members need not bring any prior experience — all are welcome to learn and participate according to their level of interest.
“We have people that have been sailing around the world, and we have people that have never been on a sailboat before,” Gary McIntyre, another of Suva’s captains, said in an interview.
McIntyre has been with the Suva since 2017. He’s sailed for 55 years, and earning his captain’s license has long been a bucket list item of his, he said. When he learned about the Suva, he said he couldn’t pass up a chance to sail aboard such a historic vessel.
McIntyre said his favorite thing about being a captain on the Suva is watching how excited the children are when they come aboard and get to steer the ship.
Bosun Mare Chapman has been sailing with the Suva for five years and completed 85 trips last season. As a bosun, one of her primary responsibilities is to help direct the crew during the voyage.
Chapman used to sail frequently, she said, but it had been many years since her last time on the water when she joined the Suva’s crew.
“I love the smell of an old wooden boat,” she said, describing the scent as “a combination of diesel and varnish and old wood.”
The Suva was built in Hong Kong in 1925 for Frank Pratt Jr., a lawyer who lived on Central Whidbey in the early 1900s. According to legend, a relative of Pratt’s was instrumental in the design and building of the city of Suva in Fiji, an island nation in the South Pacific, which is how the schooner got its name. Since it first arrived in Penn Cove, the Suva has always been kept in Puget Sound waters.
Anyone interested in joining the crew can find more information or sign up by visiting whidbeyislandmaritimeheritagefoundation.org and clicking “Join Us.” Tickets for regular season sailings and information about private charters can be found at schoonersuva.org.