What’s That Big Boat Docked at the Southwest Waterfont?

United States Merchant Marine Academy’s SummerWind Schooner makes its first visit to Washington
Photograph by Rebecca Ritzel.

Talk to members of DC’s boating community, and they’ll likely share plenty of opinions about what the Southwest DC waterfront really needs beyond a long-planned facelift: more attractions. 

“It’s pitiful,” houseboat resident Peg Blake says of her neighborhood dining and retail options. 

This week, at least, the area has a new one: the celebrity schooner the SummerWind, a stunning, 101-foot yacht visiting from the United States Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York. Guests scheduled to come aboard include Cabinet Secretaries, maritime administrators, Navy admirals, and maybe even you.

The SummerWind cruised in Saturday at sunset after the Woodrow Wilson Bridge opened, allowing the 70-plus-foot masts to pass through while impatient motorists waited for one of the 20 or so bridge raisings each year. (Most are in the middle of the night.) 

As far as Commander Chris Gasiorek knows, this is the 82-year-old boat’s maiden voyage up the Potomac but not her first time docking at a world capital. Sunday afternoon at an Open Ship event, the SummerWind’s three-man professional crew and 11 academy midshipmen fielded questions about the boat’s peripatetic past from inquisitive novices and nautical experts. 

They did a great job, according to Captain Jonathan Kabak, especially because the freshmen just climbed aboard SummerWind for the first time three days ago.

Built in 1929 in Thomaston, Maine, for a New York banker who couldn’t afford to pay up once the ship was complete, the SummerWind has changed hands and names many times. During World War II, she was conscripted into the Coastal Picket Patrol, a fleet of private yachts that patrolled New England waters rescuing sailors whose ships had been torpedoed by German U-boats.

At some point, she crossed the Atlantic to become a Mediterranean yacht for hire. In 2006, in disrepair, she limped home to West Palm Beach, where J. Don Williamson, a Texas millionaire, had her refitted, and took her out about ten times before determining that steering the heavy, three-foot wheel hurt his back. 

Williamson then did what any wealthy, achy boat owner might do: He turned his toy into a tax write-off. His call to the Merchant Marine Academy came in cold. But it took only a few seconds of Googling for the academy staff to say, “Yes! We’ll take her.” 

After another $8 million of refurbishing—paid for by Williamson—the SummerWind joined the academy’s 100-ship fleet in 2009. When not sailing in competitions, she travels the seaboard as a floating public-and-alumni-relations office for the Merchant Marine Academy. Plans for her first DC visit include dinner for a Navy admiral (fresh seafood from the piers cooked by Gasiorek), visits from Maritime Administration officials, and a sailing expedition with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. 

But first, a chance for the locals to hop onboard. 

“Guys, this is about as nice a sailboat as you’ll ever see,” Virginia resident Howard Yeager says to his 11- and 8-year-old sons as they strolled the ship’s teakwood-trimmed decks. The family had come to the Southwest waterfront to take an hourlong Potomac tour on the Patriot, a small cruise ship docked next door. 

A Queens native, Yeager recognized the Merchant Marine Academy banner hanging from the starboard railing. Other visitors were unaware that the United States has a publicly funded college for seafarers-in-training. 

“If I had known about [the Merchant Marine Academy] when I was younger, I would have gone to school there and traveled the world,” says Betty Lee, a Rockville resident and member of the NIH sailing club who relished her time onboard the SummerWind on Sunday. “I can’t believe this. It’s so impressive,” she says. “This is what you call being in the right place at the right time.” 

For 30 minutes, she quizzed midshipmen Thomas Greathouse and Nick Skogen about the boating, sailing, and life at the Maritime Academy. 

As is protocol at the four other service academies (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Navy), students interested in attending King’s Point must be nominated by a member of Congress. Get in, get a full ride, and get the best seafaring education in the country. Graduate, and chose between becoming a Naval officer or taking a civilian maritime job and serving in the Naval reserve. 

Lee and others who came aboard Sunday were directed by friendly, poncho-clad volunteers from DC Sail, a local nonprofit that offers sailing lessons to children and adults. Blair Overman, the group’s waterfront director, encouraged students hanging around the piers to stop by and see the SummerWind before heading home. 

“This is really special,” Overman says. “Definitely, our hope for the waterfront development is that this will happen more and more often, that more tall ships will come dock in DC.”

The SummerWind will be docked at the Gangplank Marina (600 Water St., SW) all week. Commander Gasiorek anticipates keeping the boat open for tours most afternoons.

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