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Schooners for all

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published September 01. 2013 4:00AM

When close to two dozen schooners gather soon in New London for the city's new Schooner Festival, an owner of one of the boats can claim to have survived a brush with Tropical Storm Irene in the Thames River.

Attorney Michael Bradley of Westerly owns the 46-foot Sophia Christina, which will visit both Mystic and New London as part of the combined festival later this month, a gathering that promises to be a head-turning display of some of the country's most handsome schooners.

It will be the visit to New London that will stir up some recent sore memories for Bradley, though.

Actually, since the boat came out of the 2011 hurricane generally undamaged, after breaking free from its mooring, you would think Bradley might feel some good karma for New London.

But when I caught up with him last week by phone - he was doing some schooner festival preparation chores on board the Sophia Christina - he seemed anxious to move the conversation past Irene, even though it's a pretty good sea story.

It turns out Bradley's schooner, after breaking free during Irene, was blown up the river, toward the rocky little island off the Pfizer/Electric Boat towers.

At the last minute, though, as it was headed toward the rocks, the boat took a sharp 90-degree turn, dodged some more things in its way, and then, as if some able skipper were at the helm, headed toward a sandy beach on lower Pequot Avenue.

The beach where the 20-ton schooner safely landed is actually owned by a small salvage company, which was able to deploy a crane and get the Sophia Christina floating again, once the storm had passed.

Still, you can understand Bradley's inclination not to revisit the close call with Irene.

In fact, Bradley's story of his relationship to the Sophia Christina, even without a brush with a hurricane, is evidence of the adage that every beautiful schooner has an interesting story to tell.

For the Sophia Christina, built in the early 1980s by a prominent wooden boat builder in the Pacific Northwest, it is a reunion story.

Bradley was living in the state of Washington, taking a hiatus from law school, when the Sophia Christina was being built.

He heard about the project and managed to get hired to help, feeding an interest in learning more about building wooden boats.

"I basically begged to get a spot on the crew building it," Bradley recalled about the start of his boat building internship.

"I actually had to work for free for a month just to prove myself," he said. "Then I got to work for minimum wage."

Bradley eventually went on to finish law school. And he ended up owning and buying boats of his own along the way, after starting his law practice.

Eventually, about six years ago, he and Sophia Christina were reunited. The schooner was for sale, and he was ready for a new boat. He had it trucked across the country.

Bradley says he does all the work on the boat himself. He sails it with the help of friends and family, including his 17-year-old son Brien, who he says sometimes knows more about the boat than he does.

Sophia Christina will be among the smaller boats at this month's festival. But she will still enter the schooner race out of New London.

Bradley said he is not expecting to finish ahead of the many schooner thoroughbreds that will be in town for the festival and race.

"To be competitive would be an incredible surprise," he said.

And yet his schooner has surprised him before.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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