Briggs Cunningham’s classic schooner comes home
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)
Southport, CT – Trim, well-heeled and dressed to impress, she looked outstanding for her 79 years, sitting proudly dockside.
The storied schooner “Brilliant” was back home, if only for a quick visit, in Southport Harbor Wednesday afternoon, attracting boaters, history fans and long-time area residents. Once owned by late Southporter Briggs Cunningham, the vessel is now maintained by Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT, and is used for annual training programs.
Standing mid-ship on the nearly 62-foot-long, 30-ton craft, Captain Ham Moore shared some of Brilliant’s history. “She was built for Walter Barnum in 1932 by Henry B. Nevins Yard in City Island, NY, one of the premiere boat builders of that era,” he said. “The designer was Olin Stephens of Sparkman and Stephens. After Barnum, the boat changed hands several times until Cunningham took possession in the mid-1940s. He started a youth sailing program with it at Pequot Yacht Club.”
When Cunningham donated the ship to Mystic Seaport in 1953, he specified that it continue to be used as a training vessel. Today, she sails May through October, providing weekend trips for adults in the spring and fall and five- and ten-day training programs for teens in the summer. She is also available for school groups and charter. She sails with three full-time crewmembers – a captain, mate and cook – and a complement of eight students.
“We can sail her with fewer people on board, but I wouldn’t want to be out with fewer than six,” said Chris Freeman, Director of Individual Giving at Mystic Seaport, who was on hand to give tours.
“We were down in Oyster Bay for the past week-and-a-half and decided to pay a visit to the ship’s home port,” said Moore. “It hasn’t been here since the mid-90s and there were a lot of friends of the ship and Seaport with whom we wanted to reconnect, while bringing a little of the Seaport down to here. She starts her teen service in a couple of weeks.”
Moore said Brilliant has been continuously well maintained over the years but that she is also exceptionally well built, meant to be very seaworthy and heavier than the fiberglass and carbon fiber construction of today’s boats.
Moore added, “She’s largely original other than the deck, which was replaced five years ago. She’s also been updated with modern safety and navigation equipment, as an inspected vessel that’s currently in use. She still sails 100 days a year and has carried over 10,000 people in her days at the Seaport.”
Walking the deck and admiring the brass fittings, Lewis Huffman of Fairfield said, “I love old boats. I’ve seen Brilliant at the Seaport but never had a chance to board her before. I personally used to own a wooden boat. I hope I look this good at 79. She’s perfect.”
Another visitor, Westporter Pam Collins, said, “My husband and I own a 38-foot sailboat. This is absolutely gorgeous, and very well maintained. It looks to be comfortable and well outfitted, especially for its age. I would love to go for a sail on it sometime.”
Visitor W. Stevens Sheppard, a long-time Southport resident, said Brilliant is the largest boat he ever remembers seeing in Southport Harbor and that Cunningham was very generous with his time, often taking out friends and neighbors for a sail. “I grew up on a schooner with the galley forward like Brilliant,” he said. “That’s an older design element.”
Looking out on the Harbor and the great lady moored there, Pequot Yacht Club Master Refinisher Chris Hughes said, “Brilliant is part of Pequot’s history and Briggs’ name speaks for itself. He was a top-notch sailor and did a lot for the junior sailing program here.”