US BRIG NIAGARA Sets Sail for Season

Christopher Cusson, captain of the U.S. BRIG NIAGARA, oversees work to prepare the ship for the upcoming sailing season [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]

Erie’s iconic flagship has its first shakedown training sail Saturday in Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie.

You can bet U.S. BRIG NIAGARA Capt. Christopher Cusson and his crew will take an occasional timeout from their duties on Saturday during the vessel’s first shakedown training sail.

They will make it a point to notice motorists who have stopped their cars along Erie’s bayfront, people standing atop bluffs and waving at crew and folks lining the North and South piers along the channel as Erie’s iconic flagship makes its way from Presque Isle Bay into Lake Erie.

Erie’s community tends to notice when the NIAGARA sets sail for the first time every season.

“When we’re headed out the channel and people are there along the channel, whether they’re at Presque Isle State Park or Erie, it’s nice to be able to wave to people and say hello and show them that Erie’s ship is getting underway again for the season,” Cusson said. “This is Erie’s ship and everyone is really excited to see the ship passing through the channel because it’s kind of an anomaly. When she comes through, you’re going to notice her.”

Cusson and about 85 professional and volunteer crew members will spend about four to five hours in Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie Saturday testing the vessel’s engines, performing emergency drills and evaluating every system on the ship.

The ship is expected to leave its mooring from behind the Erie Maritime Museum at about noon, Cusson said.

“It’s an exciting time the first time the ship gets underway and we’re able to really put her through the paces and make sure the ship is ready to go for the season,” Cusson said.

Additional NIAGARA crew training sails are scheduled for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The ship’s U.S. Coast Guard inspection sail is scheduled for Wednesday.

About 15 professional crew members and about 70 volunteers and winter sail-training students are expected to participate in Saturday’s training regimen.

“The shakedown sail is a lot about the ship and making sure the ship is ready for the season,” Cusson said. “Part of that is making sure we run the engines hard, and the best place to do that is outside the bay. Once we get the ship underway and get her on the lake, we’ll be testing all the ship’s systems, engineering, navigation, safety systems, and just making sure everything is working properly. Then we’re going to set one sail at a time, take it in, set the next one and take it in, and make sure all the rigging and sails are all set up properly.”

During the NIAGARA’s training sails on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, crews will focus on drills and safety, performing emergency drills, fire drills, man-overboard drills and abandon-ship drills.

“Saturday is about the ship, but the other days are leading up to our Coast Guard inspection on Wednesday, and they are going to be all about the crew and making sure the crew is trained up,” Cusson said.

These four days of training mark the only time during each sailing season when the NIAGARA operates strictly with its crew.

In the past month, crews have installed more than 6 miles of rigging on the vessel.

“The last month, which is our uprigging period, is a sprint within a marathon of sprints throughout the whole season,” Cusson said. “Every day, there are things that have to get done and they all build up to this Saturday.”

Cusson was promoted to captain of the NIAGARA by the Flagship Niagara League in November to oversee the vessel’s offseason maintenance, summer operations and sailing programs.

Cusson served with the NIAGARA from 2008 to 2010 in numerous roles, including third mate, and rejoined the NIAGARA crew as third mate in 2015. He was promoted to second mate in 2016 and to chief mate in 2018. Cusson previously served aboard the NIAGARA as an engineer, safety officer and navigation officer.

“You have six months to think about it and then this Saturday comes up and you start getting excited about getting her off the dock and getting everybody on board trained up to sail the ship again for the summer,” Cusson said. “It’s my job to take her off and make sure that we do all the things we need to do to make sure the ship is ready.”