Geoff Pope, left and friend Richard Thorpe cruise Lake Superior.
Topsail ketch Sheila Yeates, 60 feet from bowsprit to boomkin.
Photo by Richard Olsenius
Photos by Bob Crockett
Sheila Yeates under construction in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in 1973.
When I was a boy I wanted to be asked aboard
All by Richard Olsenius
I can't imagine retiring and not sailing
There's a lot of things to see in the world
Sheila Yeates on an early autumn cruise along the Canadian North Shore of Lake Superior.
Photo by Richard Olsenius
I first saw the Sheila Yeates in the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior one warm August day in late 1978 while cruising on our 30-foot sailboat – Summerwind. It’s easy to spot a 50-foot topsail ketch because her 19th century “tall ship” design stood out amid the fiberglass production yachts on the lake. Sailing down Chequamegon Bay, with her imposing main, jib, mizzen and topsails furled, she held your gaze and made you think of distant ports of call from a bygone era. You didn’t have to be a sailor to see that the Sheila Yeates was something special. There had to be an intriguing story behind her and one year later, my husband and I would discover it.
With its ruggedly beautiful terrain, cold water and reputation for unpredictable weather, Lake Superior attracts a special breed of sailor and adventurer and that is where our lives converged with Geoff Pope’s dream and the story of the Sheila Yeates. My husband, a professional photographer, received a National Geographic Magazine assignment to cover the western Great Lakes in the summer of 1985. He was researching places and people to cover and knew immediately that this would be a great opportunity to photograph that classic ship on Lake Superior. It only took a few inquiries around the Bayfield and Port Superior, Wisconsin marinas and we had the captain’s name and contact information. We tracked down Geoff Pope and introduced ourselves, explaining how attracted we were to the vessel and describing the nature of Richard’s magazine story. Lucky for Richard, the Sheila Yeates had space on a two-day charter, which would provide a perfect opportunity to go aboard. He signed on immediately. It was the start of a life-long friendship.
Geoff Pope turned out to be a charismatic, photogenic, engaging old man-in-the-sea whose dexterity climbing the ratlines 35-feet above the deck belied his 72 years of age. He had a magnetism that drew you into his orbit. His wry humor and endless stories could engage you for hours. He was a natural salesman too, having successfully sold wholesale women’s clothing all his life. He could sell you on ideas, charters, Lake Superior, or an ocean voyage. He was a pied piper with a following of both seasoned old salts and sailing novices. Over the years, the Sheila Yeates became a conduit for hundreds of people to explore sailing, and for a smaller group of regulars to experience blue-water cruising.
The Sheila Yeates was the culmination of a life-long dream. “You know, you go to bed at night, every night and think about this ship – the ultimate distillation of your experience and of all your dreams,” Geoff once told Minneapolis Tribune reporter, John Oslund. “The dreams go on so long and you‘re constantly trying to put them in three dimensions with money and materials.”
While in his late 60’s it had taken Geoff years to assemble a small group of like-minded sailors who would help finance a labor of love – construction of a 50-foot Civil War-era topsail ketch. With his three sons in tow, Geoff searched for boat builders in Spain, Holland and Canada. He eventually found Murray Stevens, a boat builder in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia who would take the sketches from Geoff’s friend and tall ship enthusiast, Bob Jackson, and transform them into a finished work of art. The keel was laid in 1971. But the original estimates for building the Sheila Yeates went by the wayside as the ship was under construction, and continued shortfalls in funds lengthened her building schedule to five years. The number of partners also grew as the cost of the ship increased nearly six times her original estimate, from $25,000 to $150,000. But when they were finished, she was a beauty.
“It’s kind of your baby and you are watching it being born and you have something to say about it,” said Geoff, remembering the early years of construction.
The ship was 50-feet long on deck and 64-feet from bowsprit to boomkin. According to long time friend and boat builder Bob Crockett, “Sheila Yeates seized my imagination the moment I walked into the boat shed in Lunenburg. Her tall bow, round as an apple, loomed over my head, smooth, pale as cream and looking as soft as a power puff. That was the rare Port Orford cedar planking, bound at the top with a thicker strake of dark mahogany… Her tailboards, curving from the cutwater at the top of her stem were carved from Kauri wood from the Antipodes. Her taffrail, wrapping gracefully across her stern to the break in her sheer ended in delicate scrolls.”
From the very beginning, she was designed for ocean cruising to remote places, for excitement and adventure. Named for Geoff’s only daughter, the Sheila Yeates was launched in 1976 just in time to participate in the Op Sail’76 Bicentennial Celebration in New York Harbor. She was a beautiful 19th century tall ship skippered by a larger-than-life 20th century captain.
“Geoff introduced me to this world,” said Crockett. “I would have never served on other (tall) ships like the Niagara, Gazella and Picton Castle if I hadn’t first experienced Sheila Yeates. Yet my life was only one of countless others that he touched in this way, and many of those wonderful people became good friends.”
“My memories of Geoff Pope and the Sheila Yeates are unlike any other memories I have. That guy knew how to bring people together,” reminisced Mike Metzmaker, friend and fellow blue water sailor. “I would drive up from Minneapolis and sail the Sheila Yeates out of Bayfield with others. We all had a great time. Geoff was addictive. He had a magical touch.”
Close friend, fellow sailor and business partner, Bob Bruce had another remembrance. “Geoff always told me not to wait to make your dreams come true. Your work is never done. So you have to make time for things you want to do. I think of that often. Geoff called me in late June of 1986 and told me to come out to the Sheila Yeates for the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor on July 4. I had no idea how I could get away from work and other commitments. Geoff said, ‘Just be here.’ So I went. Of all the July 4 holidays that I have experienced that is the one I still remember most.”
Vicky Costello had been a nurse at a Minneapolis hospital when she met Geoff and joined the Sheila Yeates crew for the 1985 trip to Greenland. Originally planning on staying for the first leg of the journey only, the amazing experience and Geoff ‘s hard sell convinced her to quit her job and stay on for the full four-month trip. “I began to realize there was so much more to see, so much more to do. And I was going to miss it,” she told a newspaper reporter writing a story about the trip. ”I didn’t want to go to my grave wondering what it would have been like.”
Geoff had the capacity to change people’s lives. He believed that life was a gift and the greatest sin was not living it to the fullest.
Sailing had been Geoff’s love from his early years when he would stand along the shore of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis watching the sailboats “with hungry eyes” and hoping someone would invite him on board. No one ever did. “That memory is so emblazoned in my mind that I always try to get kids on board if I see them out at the end of the dock at Bayfield,” said Geoff.
“There was a depression, and there was a war and then there was family so you didn’t have the opportunity to explore facets that you felt or aimed for,” explained Geoff, trying to analyze the delay in fulfilling his dream. “My generation retired at 65. That was habit and at 65 you took your golf clubs and you went to Florida. You sold your house and you wondered why you were unhappy. And I think people are beginning to find out that you don’t have to be dead at 65. It’s hard to imagine wanting to mow the lawn and not go sailing.”
“A lot of men, as they notice age creeping up on them, embark on a last ditch effort to make up for a lackluster life,” said Bob Crockett. “Not so with Geoff. His entire life had been a pursuit of adventure.” In 1936 while still in his twenties, Geoff and his friend, Sheldon Taylor were working as bookkeepers in New York when they decided to quit their jobs and set out by canoe from Manhattan Island paddling and portaging 7,865 miles across North America to Nome, Alaska. The trip took 18 months and was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest canoe trip in history. The record held until 1977! While earning a living and raising a family absorbed his focus over the intervening years, Geoff’s wanderlust and need for adventure never ceased
In 1987 my husband and I joined a week-long charter on the Sheila Yeates heading to the Canadian North Shore. We were transported to a bygone era on this classic ship sailing beyond the Apostle Islands to the open waters of Lake Superior. Geoff clapped and shouted as soon as the furled sails caught the wind. The Sheila Yeates responded slowly but steadily, building speed and momentum, her graceful bowsprit raising and lowering as she plowed through the waves. I had never sailed such a large vessel, not only in length but also in sheer mass. The Sheila Yeates was 62,000 pounds of displaced varnished wood and lead keel but she was gracefully gliding through the water.
“When the sails are filling right and the vessel is responding to the trim and the wind is not a survival-type wind and you are bowling along – it’s exhilarating,” said Geoff trying to describe the high that many sailors feel. “When it’s going right it’s spontaneous and you just kind of burst inside.”
“For me from Thunder Bay through the northeast coast, this whole stretch is as fine a cruising ground as there is in the world,” said Geoff. “It’s remote enough that you always feel each hour, each moment, you’re seeing it for the first time and it’s yours…If a 2,000-year old native American came alive he would recognize the profile of everything that’s there.”
“People don’t realize what a vast inland waterway it is. I had eleven people fly out from the East Coast for a week on Lake Superior that last weekend in October. Well, they couldn’t believe anything like this existed. You get out there, you know, and you’ve got a 360-degree horizon. Lakes to them are like Lake Placid or something.”
While many people through the years saw the Sheila Yeates as a valuable Great Lakes resource, Geoff continued to dream up ocean cruises. In 1985, the Sheila Yeates left the Great Lakes with a full crew and sailed out the St. Lawrence Seaway across the Labrador Sea to Greenland on a four-month trip. “I know that I am different,” Geoff told a reporter upon their return, “But it means a great deal to me to finally get to Eric the Red’s fjord, with the icebergs in it and …seeing the same scenery that has not changed one bit in a thousand years.”
In 1988 Geoff also sailed around Cape Horn on the 57-foot fiberglass Bowman Ketch, Cloud Nine, skippered by his friend Roger Swanson. It was easy to see the wanderlust in his eyes when he talked about sailing.
So it was not surprising, when Geoff began to discuss taking the Sheila Yeates on another voyage to Iceland, Scotland, and England. The lure of the sea was always with him. “A man who could canoe from New York to Nome was not afraid of difficulties,” according to friend, Bob Crockett, “and Geoff was always seeking new challenges.”
In order to finance such an extensive trip, it would be planned to accommodate charter “crew” relay teams that would join the expedition at different stages along the route. Some people would be able to stay on board for a month or six to eight weeks but others would not, so breaking the trip into intervals could make the adventure affordable for more people. The longest stretch of open water and the one requiring the most experienced crew would be the stretch from St. Anthony, Newfoundland across the Labrador Sea and North Atlantic to Reykjavik, Iceland nearly 1,500 miles away. Instead of a direct crossing, Geoff wanted to sail through Prinz Christian Sund Passage, a stunning waterway through the fjords of southern Greenland before heading to Iceland.
Video by Richard Olsenius
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