A heroic little schooner plies historic Lake Champlain

Its builders -- shipwrights on the Delaware Bay -- would be amazed to see what has become of the schooner, the Richard Robbins, in the 79 years since they lavished care upon it. They made it a beautiful and seaworthy oyster dredger with two masts and capacious holds ready to carry shiploads of crusty mollusks to the fishmarket and dinner table.

They would probably not be surprised to learn that their confident little ship still commands the waves. But they would, without doubt, look up with astonishment from their caulking putty and oakum to hear that their small-scale windjammer, their elegant white- pine wonder, was no longer cruising the salty Atlantic, but rather carrying passengers, with dignity and grace, on the vast, historical waters of Lake Champlain.

The only schooner anywhere near Vermont -- and one of the few in the world navigating in fresh waters -- the renovated 58-foot gaff-rigged Richard Robbins cruises weekly out of Burlington's uncongested harbor during the summer months through October. Following the wind -- the "iron jib," or motor launch, trailing the ship is used only as a last resort during rare windless hours -- the Robbin's miniature adventures on Lake Champlain inadvertently commemorate the grand, earlier expeditions of its most impressive 18th- and 19th-century naval forebears: Fleets of warships, sloops, gondolas, and schooner fought major battles here during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

As the result of the inspiration of Kempton and Nancy Webb, professors of geography and social welfare at Columbia and Fordham Universities, the Windjammer Richard Robbins first made perkins pier in quiet Burlington harbor iuts home berth in 1978. The Robbins had served its Delaware Bay owners faithfully until 1965 when the oysters were evicted to make room for more appreciative passengers. It sailed for 13 years as a cruise ship off the coast of maine before the Webbs bought it.

The Webbs had had a summer home at Vergennes, VT., and ahd grown to love the magnificent lake which extends 130 miles from Quebec deep into the heart of the United States. Taking their children to camp in Maine every year, they had become aware of schooner traffic on the rocky coast. As Kempton Webb put it, they saw "people coming off the boats in a state of euphoria" after a week of windjamming. Thinking of the beautiful mountain scenery, the warm water for swimming, and the historical and geographical interest of the area, the Webbs took the plunge and brought their own sturdy schooner to Lake Champlain.

I boarded the well-fitted schooner on a Sunday night, with a pack full of enough dry clothes for a week: The Robbins sails by a wind-set itinerary from Monday to Saturday mornings.First mate Fred Robie, a stand-up comic, trained in the finest tradition on Maine's windjammer fleet, was on deck greeting passengers and pouring his heart into sea songs on his guitar.

Fred's wife, Cathy, an experienced transatlantic sailor, is the Robbins captain this season. My fellow passengers -- who began friendships that Sunday night which deepened with every day on board -- agreed that a steadier, more trustworthy helmsperson would have been hard to find. The coordination we later witnessed between the captain and the crew was often amazing, especially as we ourselves literally began to learn the ropes -- or "sheets" and "halyards" -- and to help with the daily task of rigging the Robbins and trimming and setting its sails.

During the week I spent aboard, we met what the crew described as the stiffest, most exciting breezes of the summer. Just at a point where the lake narrows and the coastal Adirondacks become steep and dramatic between Thompson Point and Split Rock on the NEw York side, we encountered intense, fluky winds which made the sails flap and flutter with their new tautness, and sent books and sunglasses flying almost beyond the reach of long armed sailors suddenly turned outfielders.

That day we covered about 8 miles, as the crow flies. But, beating upwind, crossing state lines between the fjordlike New York and the more gentle and affluent Vermont a dozen times, we covered over 25 watery miles at sometimes over 7 knots speed (off the wind). Our captain's mandatory athletics at the wheel -- many full turns to bring the ship about on each leg of our windward journey -- prompted me to ask whether she'd felt any terror in face of such stiff, if exhilarating winds. She praised the Robbins -- which proved itself once again not a naval antique, but a well-tuned and responsive sailing craft -- and praised the lake -- whose narrow gorge passages admit beautiful strong winds , but prohibit ocean-size swells -- but, she also confessed that she'd stitched enough sail not to want to do it again, and that we'd just seen the kind of weather when you start to worry.

Our poor cook! Though schooled in adversity as a scallop fisherperson off the Nantucket coast during the winter season, Karen Alence, a true master chef on an old wood stove, was little prepared for the task of preparing lunch in these winds on a schooner heeled way over. The sails actually pounded with the tension as we worked our way upwind toward tiny Diamond Island with its little warning marker for ships sailing by at night or in fog. But, somehow, punctually at noon, a feast of home-cooked delectables was passed by her through the cooking "saloon's" windows to the titled deck above

Time takes on a completely new quality on board ship. Our wind-inspired adventure, we knew, would keep us together for as long as an ocean cruise. And yet. days spent on board changed their natures entirely, too: At night, sleeping on deck or just watching for a while before slipping below, we felt the neat pulleys and shrouds of our ship's rigging were there just to help us weigh and measure the profundity of the star-filled summer sky. Peering up through the mast to the zenith, we imagined that the whole deep night sky revolved around its height and the lines of its steep rigging.

We marked other hours by natural events of note -- birds calling to each other at dawn from all sides of our cove moorings and fists of clouds commanding the variable noon sky -- or by the antics of our fellows. The ship rocked us gently every day into morning and we felt virtuous if we swam before breakfast, or philosophical if we chose instead to contemplate the islands farther offshore , alluring in the morning mist.

It's impossible to cruise Champlain's unspoiled expanse for long without passing islands of shores where history was irrevocably changed or shaped by naval heroics. Our first nigh out, as we cruised toward one such spot, we learned that one of the lake's greatest heroes and -- one of the Revolutionary War's most brillian tacticians -- was none other than Benedict Arnold, whose attempt to betray Colonial military plans to the British were discovered, forcing him to flee to Britain with the reputation of traitor.

Sent on a mission in August of 1776 with a homemade fleet to hold off the power British advancing down the lake from Canada, Arnold devised at Valcour Island a plan for halting or, at least, deterring the ferocious British Flotilla. On the second morning of our 20th century adventure, we hiked across ARnold's island -- now covered in the spring with wild geraniums, lady-slippers, and columbine -- to the scene of his ingenious defensive battle.

Though the Bristish ultimately overpowered the ill-equipped american fleet, Arnold's placement of his ships behind the island, upwind of the British, staggered across the bay on tight cables so that they could move without raising sails, gave him a fighting edge. His fierce stand weakened the officially victorious British; later that nigh the Americans were able to slip away through the fog.

We inadvertently followed Arnold's course the next day also, running with mild breezes southward past Schulyer's Island where Arnold counted his losses, sunk two damaged gondolas, plugged leaks in his weakened vessels, and took other emergency measures before he continued his flight. The island is still uninhabited: Waves lap against its rocky shoreline and songbirds entertain each other across its spacious fields and plains.

At Split Rock on the New York side, we also skirted, under heavier winds, the spot where the British finally caught up with the fierce Arnold who stood them off until his own ship, the Congress, was so shattered and torn that it had to be run ashore and burnt to save it from capture.

Though Arnold's ultimate disappointment at being passed over for a promotion the following year and his marriage into a wealthy Philadelphia Tory family led him to participate in a treasonous plot to betray West Point to the British (a lapse of loyalty he regretted for the rest of his melancholy life in England), his actions on Lake Champlain prevented the British from taking Fort Ticonderoga that year and joining forces with their fellows coming up the Hudson River: Together, they might easily have overpowered Washington's hard-pressed troops.

Centuries of lake history also been recorded in reports of sightings of Champlain's legendary monster, or "creature," as many more affectionately call it.Thought by some to be an evolutionary cousin for the zeuglodon, a creature which has been extinct for 20 million years, "Champ" -- or A. Champlaininus -- has been sighted hundreds of times in the last century in variety of shapes and with range of capacities: In 1894, he was a long necked creature with green eyes; in 1927, he was said to have breathed hot fire. The most exciting recent development for seekers of the elusive creature -- several of whom kept their eyes peeled from the Robbins deck during our trip -- was the recent publication by the New York Times of the first "authenticated" photo of the strange organism: The head and neck of the creature are visible at an obligue angle.

Whether the next sighting leads to the apprehension of Champ or not, there is little question that the monster's beautiful, expansive border lake will continue to attract those who enjoy uncrowded clean water, and, especially, those who enjoy excellent sailing. We felt that the colonists who first built schooners for the lake must have been right in choosing them over brigs and topmasted ships: The Robbin's grace and maneuverability made it a perfect boat for puffy lake winds.

Part of the lake -- Missiquoi Bay and the outflow waters leading into the Richelieu River -- is in Canada: the international flavor penetrates far into the American heartland. French voices broadcasting from the Rive sud, Longueuil , across the St. Lawrence from Montreal can be picked up on the radio from Lake Champlain. MAny French Canadian sailors know the lake well in its southmost regions.

As we plunged many times every day into its cool depths -- or doused each other with bucket baths of lake water -- we appreciated lake Champlain's purity.Prohibitions against dumping keep the water clean. Every boat on the lake must be equipped with a waste water holding tank.Some still drink water out of the lake.

We spent our last night on board the Robbins in lovely Shelburne Harbor, just south of our home port on the Vermont side. From our anchorage, we looked back across the water though a narrow harbor mouth to the rosy clouds far off above the New York coast.

Bathed in the warmth and appreciation of each other earned of a week together , we felt, yes, something approaching a state of euphoria. Only part of our course was in view, but we felt we could look back over the distances we had covered in that harbor scene: Its beauty symbolized all we had experienced together on our midsummer journey on the confident schooner, the Richard Robbins.

The Robbins will sail every week for the rest of the summer and early autumn out of Burlington, Vt. A $360 fee covers the week's accommodations, delicious homecooked meals, and an unsurpassable sailing experience. A special group rate is available. For further information of reservations, contact kempton E. Webb, President, Champlain Windjammer Company, September through May: Box 722, Ridgewood, N.J. 07450 (201) 445-6957; June through August: Box 195, Vergennes, Vt. 05491 (802) 759-2411.

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