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SETTING SAIL. Five `cadets' learn the ropes on a nine-day Maritime Wilderness cruise

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 1985

Camden, Maine

IT is a few minutes after 1 a.m. The ebony sky is splashed with stars so bright they seem surreal. Wind, mixed with sea spray, blasts the faces of crew members roused for the early morning watch. Far off to starboard, barely perceptible lights hint the presence of a fishing fleet.

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One of the more experienced hands aboard the Spirit of Massachusetts, a 100-foot schooner owned by the New England Historic Seaport in Charlestown, Mass., strolls soundlessly to the bow, where a much greener sailor stands watch. ``Sailing at night,'' he muses. ``It kind of scared me first time I did it. But nothing can beat it. It's awesome.''

The memory of slicing through a starlit ocean is one of a sea chest full of experiences for five sail trainees -- ``cadets,'' to use the traditional term -- on a nine-day voyage up the coast of Maine, in and around its dozens of islands, and back to home port at Charlestown, a section of Boston. The Maritime Wilderness cruise is the third in a series of summer sail-training trips, for young people of high school and college age, sponsored by the Historic Seaport.

This is the program's first year. The ``Spirit'' herself, a meticulous replica of a 19th-century fishing schooner, received her final touches only about 16 months ago.

Two days short of the end of her cruise, the ship is tied to a pier at Camden, a salty Maine village that once reared captains of clipper ships.

Around 9 p.m. a couple of newcomers -- a journalist and a photographer -- work themselves and their gear down the gangway to the schooner's ``main saloon.'' It's a surprisingly roomy place, with bunks enough for 12, a table down the center, and a galley off one end. This is where the trainees sleep.

The regular crew of 10, including officers, deckhands, cook, carpenter, and engineer, are quartered in the fo'c's'le near the bow or in the officers' cabin to aft.

This evening most of the crew is on shore leave, but training officer Alan Sterman and three of his charges -- Al Decie and Karl Shook, both from Newburyport, Mass., and Rob Markstein, from Columbus, Ohio -- are lounging in the saloon, trading thoughts and listening to selections from Mr. Sterman's ample stock of sea stories.

Understanding the workings of a vessel like the Spirit is a `` `do' thing,'' emphasizes Sterman, whose tanned, sharp-featured face and billowing white hair make him the picture of an ``old salt.''

``It's not an intellectual phenomenon, not a matter of information to digest,'' he continues. ``It's lots of repeats, doing things over and over.'' Mr. Decie, a lean young man with a scholarly look, nods in agreement. It takes ``no more than a couple of days'' to get in tune with the ship's routine, says the cadet. ``You have to get used to it. You have to be on the right line at the right time.'' The next day would illustrate what he meant.

By morning, the rains of the night before have fled. The first order of business is a meeting, with Capt. Jonathan Bacon Smith (``J. B.'' to all aboard) presiding, to go over the day's plans. He holds up a chart of the coast, points out where they've been and where they're going, and comments wistfully, ``All we can do is hope for a fair breeze to Boston.''

The captain rubs his graying beard a little, then points to the fog hanging around the hills behind Camden. ``Hopefully, we won't encounter that fuzzy-looking stuff.''