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.
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.''
The heavy ropes holding the Spirit to the dock are loosed, and she motors out of the tiny harbor, past yachts and skiffs. Clear of the mooring area, Captain Smith bellows, ``Let's get some wings on this bird.''
In a matter of minutes, officers, deckhands, and trainees have manned the lines that guide and hoist the sails. Gangs of five or six form along the halyards, hauling hand over hand to cries of ``heave!''
High up on the ratlines, deckhand Paul Dormitzer stretches to dab the mast with grease, hoping to ease the way for the heavy gaff that carries the sail.
Down below, first mate Rick McDonough peers intently at the unfurling sail, giving calm, firm orders -- ``Up on the throat!'' ``Slower on the peak!'' Another young deckhand, Conrad Gann, shimmies out on the bowsprit to help raise the jib.
There's a certain exhilaration about it -- something to do with teamwork and camaraderie. Some observations of Sterman's from the night before come to mind. Qualities like perseverance, loyalty, and responsibility to others are ``built in'' to this kind of training, he had said.
``In my opinion, those are good values,'' he asserted, ``more important than sailing itself.'' At which point he laughed and added jokingly, ``Don't quote me.''
As the ship picks up some speed, still motoring as well as sailing because of a less-than-bountiful wind, some of the less romantic facets of sail training come into view.
Deckhand Dormitzer and trainee Rob Markstein grab scrapers and tins of thinner and start cleaning bits of excess tar off the deck. Others apply polish and a little elbow grease to the ship bell and other brass fittings.
Later, as we near Boston, the trainees will man hoses and scrub brushes for that classic shipboard duty -- swabbing the deck.
Earlier there were hours spent learning knots and ``whipping'' the ends of ropes with heavy string to keep them from unraveling.
The novelty of it all fends off monotony, however. Humor helps too -- as when someone recalled a comment attributed to yachtsman and media magnate Ted Turner: ``If you can't tie a good knot, tie a lot of them.''
There's relentless learning by doing, and there's learning by listening, too. Everyone on board has a story. Men like Captain Smith and first mate McDonough, though still young, are compendiums of maritime know-how and lore. As one of the trainees observes, they're like figures from the bygone Age of Sail.
With only a few miles left to Boston, the captain and training officer hold one last session with the trainees. It's a chance to air criticisms -- and compliments.
Jennifer Walker, also from Newburyport, admits to having ``a hard time getting used to the confined space'' on board. But she can't say enough about the thrill of experiencing Maine's coastal wilderness.
What were the high points of the cruise?
``The whales,'' says Ben Venator, from Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. That morning, just after the starboard watch had gone to bed at 4, came the cry, ``Spouts to port!''
There followed 90 minutes of frolick with the leviathans of the deep -- compact minkes, sleek finbacks, and mammoth humpbacks surfacing as close as 20 feet away, mouths agape to snare small fish and plankton. Another unforgettable experience.
Perhaps the comment of trainee Markstein is highest praise for the Spirit and her crew:
``If there's something like this going on when I'm a parent, I'll make sure my kids go on it.''