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Love for Sail 

Lesley McLean fell in love with tall ships. Now she's helping others do the same.

The brigantine Playfair, part of the Cleveland - Harborfest.
  • The brigantine Playfair, part of the Cleveland Harborfest.

Tall ship skipper Lesley McLean's passion for sailing was kindled at an early age. Now she's fostering that love in a new generation.

"Sailing a tall ship is not something that everyone gets to do," says McLean, a 25-year-old in her first year at the helm of the brigantine Playfair. "To get to go back to school in September and say, 'I sailed a tall ship' -- that's something."

McLean's dream was set in motion by childhood trips around the Great Lakes in her parents' sloop. At age 11, she was introduced to tall ships -- the pirate-like vessels that can be 200 feet long, with sail riggings almost as tall -- and was immediately hooked. She'll navigate Playfair into Cleveland's North Coast Harbor on Wednesday, joining other tall ships on display at the Cleveland Harborfest Tall Ships Challenge.

McLean rose to her post through the ranks of the American Sail Training Association, the youth-training organization that created the Tall Ships Challenge as a friendly "race" from port to port. Each ship is manned only by a skipper, first mate, and a crew of high schoolers. There are more efficient ways to get from harbor to harbor, McLean admits, but none instill the lessons like a tall ship voyage.

"Our focus is really teaching teamwork," McLean says from her home port of Toronto, a few days before Playfair sets sail for Cleveland. "Each group really benefits from a hands-on, real experience, where their work helps a bigger product."

Adrienne Kusa, a senior at Rhodes High School, is one of 38 area contest winners who will help guide a tall ship into Cleveland. Kusa's essay on why she wants to sail earned her a bunk on the three-masted barkentine Concordia. The massive vessel will depart from Port Colborne, Ontario, and arrive in Cleveland three days later.

"I'm a little nervous," admits Kusa. "They said not to bring nice clothes.

"I don't know what's going to happen, but hey -- I'll get to be away from the house for three days."

McLean has a clearer idea of the challenges awaiting Kusa and her peers. She spent every year of high school in ASTA, learning everything from tying knots to shinning up the rigging to furl sails in foul weather.

"They'll definitely learn a lot," she says. "It's overwhelming that first day, especially on a ship that size. The lines will be huge, the rig will be high, but I think they'll feel like part of the crew, which is the idea."

Once the ships reach port, several will be opened for deck tours, serving as a sort of maritime museum. But it's a 24-hour job just getting there, McLean says. And there's no turning back.

"Kids will get sick and cold and tired," she warns. "So after a day or two of that, generally it's time to go in and let them get some sleep and feel better. It's part of the experience -- it's just the reality."

Speaking of Highlights

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