Lewes, Del.--The cool evening winds blew steadily at 15 knots, and the swells were big and long as the Jolly Rover moved out of the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal into the open waters of the Delaware Bay.
The crew moved efficiently on deck, preparing the 79-foot topsail schooner for sailing, apparently oblivious to the ship's pitching and rolling. Clad in crisp, nautical whites, they set the lower sails, and then First Mate Robert Casler climbed the rigging to unfurl the topsails.
As 1,800 square feet of traditional tanbark-colored sail swelled and filled with wind, Capt. Ward Walter shut down the engines and the ship was under sail.
This was an exciting ride for the 13 passengers who boarded the Jolly Rover. Among those greeted by the crew were a young couple from Washington, a family with two children from Maryland and a husband and wife from New Jersey treating their young grandson to the cruise.
Also along for the ride was local architect Geoff Drake, a year-round Lewes resident who occasionally volunteers as a crewman.
"I've sailed all of my life, and the Jolly Rover is just a delight," Mr. Drake said. "It's fun introducing people to the area on a boat like this."
The three-hour sunset cruise was favored with strong winds that carried the vessel all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Dolphins swam close by to spy on the passengers. And, as Captain Walter turned the ship to head back to port, the sun could be seen hanging on the edge of the horizon before slipping into the darkening water.
This was the Jolly Rover's first day of warm-weather cruising out of Lewes, the historic waterfront town which will be her summer port. In early May, the ship left St. Petersburg Beach, Fla. -- where she cruised during the winter months --and headed north for her second summer of carrying vacationers on sailing trips into the bay. Cruises are scheduled to continue through October.
The ship, which can hold 49 passengers, sails two to three times a day and is within easy driving distance of all the Delaware and Maryland beaches.
Even on hot summer days when the winds are mild and the water is calm, the Jolly Rover's sails can be hoisted. The topsails still catch enough wind to move the schooner through the Delaware Bay at a quiet, relaxed pace.
New, but it looks old
Although the Jolly Rover is modeled after the swift schooners used by 19th-century pirates and smugglers, she is a new vessel -- commissioned just over a year ago. She was built by Rover Marine Ltd., a firm owned by Captain Walter's family.
"My brother, father and I have built about a dozen topsail schooners, and we are still affiliated with five of them," said the 32-year-old captain, who lived aboard a 52-foot schooner for 17 years while he was growing up.
"My father, Merritt Walter, designs all of the boats," he said. "And my brother, Shon Walter, oversees construction. We used zero outside contracting on the Jolly Rover. Not a nut, bolt, screw or stroke was done on this boat that wasn't done by one of the family."
It took two years of welding, fitting, topcoat applying, electrical and plumbing work, sandblasting, engine installation and rigging finish the Jolly Rover. And the Jolly Rover II is currently under construction.
Sailing is definitely a family affair for the Walters. Captain Walter's children -- Chessy, 7, and Lee, 13 -- are both "great sailors" and sometimes help out as members of the Jolly Rover crew. Captain Walter's wife, Carolyn, runs the ticket booth and handles bookkeeping.
"I like the Delaware Bay," Captain Walter said. "There's better sailing -- more open water and better winds generally."
Docked at Lewes
When she's not cruising the bay, the Jolly Rover is docked at the city pier in the heart of Lewes -- a quaint little town flavored with history where visitors can enjoy shopping, boating, fishing and a quiet beach vacation.
Lewes, home of the southern terminal of the Cape May/Lewes Ferry, was originally a whaling colony settled by the Dutch in 1631. Today, the town has a historic area filled with interesting old buildings, many of which were moved here from other locations because of their significant architecture or history. Among them is a house that was struck by a cannonball during the bombardment of Lewes in the War of 1812.
This year, tourists will be able to enjoy the sights of Lewes during 15-minute spins around town in horse-drawn carriages. The rides will be offered Wednesday through Sunday from early afternoon until early evening.
"It's a pleasant way to see some wonderful old houses," said Michael De Long, owner of the Lewes Carriage Company. "We take the time to really point out interesting things to [people], things they normally wouldn't see if they were racing through in a car."
The antique carriages -- surreys with fringe on top -- will be pulled by chestnut-colored horses named Old Jack, Jack and Blaze. Carriage drivers pick up passengers outside the New Devon Inn at Second and Market streets.
Going in style
For a really elegant evening, reservations may be made for a carriage drive to and from one of the town's favorite restaurants.
"People have a grand time," Mr. De Long said. "Dinner drives are all about style and not speed. We travel at a 7-mph trot."
Overnight accommodations in town include bed-and-breakfast inns, cottages, townhouses, condominiums and small motels. Cape Henlopen State Park offers camping and an ocean beach one mile east of the town.
The New Devon Inn in downtown Lewes is one of the stops on a four-day/three-night bicycle touring package which is being offered for the first time this year by several Delaware inns. Bikers reach Lewes on the second day of the tour, which takes them on a scenic loop through the flatlands of lower Delaware. If they like, they can continue down the road to explore Cape Henlopen or Rehoboth Beach.
The tour begins inland at Spring Garden Bed and Breakfast in Laurel, heads for the coast and Lewes and then returns inland to Eli's Country Inn near Greenwood, and finally comes back to Spring Garden in Laurel. Along the way cyclists will pass a cypress swamp and a bison farm and take a free, short ride on the Woodland Ferry.
Bikers average 30 to 45 miles per day on out-of-the-way routes which are less heavily traveled, according to Gwen North, one of the participating innkeepers and founder of Biking Inn to Inn on the Eastern Shore.
"We encourage people to do these tours on the weekdays," Ms. North said. "There's far less traffic and it's a wonderful bicycle route."
IF YOU GO . . .
Jolly Rover sails from the public dock by the drawbridge on the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal in Lewes, Del. Lewes is about 110 miles from Baltimore.
Three-hour sunset cruises depart daily at 6:30 p.m. Cost: $18 for adults, $15 for children. Two-hour cruises sail at 11 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday and daily at 3 p.m. Cost: $15 for adults, $13 for children. For information or reservations: (302) 644-1501.
Lewes Carriage Company offers 15-minute, narrated horse-drawn carriage rides that begin at Second and Market streets. Operating hours are from 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for children.
Evening dinner carriage rides for up to six people are $200 for a one-horse carriage and $250 for a matched team. Passengers are picked up for dinner at their hotel or yacht and dropped off later that night. Information: Lewes Carriage Company, P.O. Box 492, Lewes, Del. 19958; (302) 645-4744.
Biking Inn to Inn Delaware includes three nights' accommodations at three bed and breakfast inns, luggage transportation from inn to inn, three breakfasts and three dinners, snacks, detailed maps and bike storage. Cost: $270 per person. For information, call the New Devon Inn at (800) 824-8754 or (302) 645-6466.
For more information about Lewes, call the Lewes Chamber of Commerce at (302) 645-8073.