Suva―Back Home and Sailing in Coupeville

Posted in Community, Feature, More Stories, Second Chance

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
August 26, 2015

“Hold the jib,” Captain Mark Saia calls out to the crew at the head of the schooner, Suva. They follow his order and the 68-foot vessel cuts through the deep blue waters of Penn Cove. Originally built as a gaff-rigged schooner in Hong Kong, she weighs 27 tons, has a speed of eight knots and was built to sail northwest waters.

Behind us, the colorful historic buildings of Coupeville become smaller. We cruise past familiar sights like Penn Cove Shellfish farm, Captain Whidbey Inn, 3 Sisters Family Farms and—in the distance—we see Mt. Baker.

Mt. Baker as seen from the Suva (photo by Kim Tinuviel)

Mt. Baker as seen from the Suva (photo by Kim Tinuviel)

The sun warms cheeks, the salty aroma of the sea fills lungs and sails snap in the wind. There is laughter and awe; the worries of life on shore drift away, which makes everyone on this shared adventure fast mates.

This is exactly what Coupeville resident Frank Pratt—who commissioned Suva in 1925—envisioned.

Captain Mark Saia started the Coupeville Maritime Foundation to bring the Suva home (photo by Kim Tinuviel)

Captain Mark Saia started the Coupeville Maritime Foundation to bring the Suva home (photo by Kim Tinuviel)

“Frank Pratt wanted her to be a work boat, take people out on the water and share the experience,” said Saia, owner of Penn Cove Sailing & Leisure Yacht Charters.

On this cruise there are locals, Whidbey Island residents, Seattleites and family visiting from Iowa. For one group it’s a birthday gift, for another it’s a chance to “drink up the water” and, for a young girl, it’s “Peter Pan” come to life as she searches the sea for the nefarious Captain Hook.

One thing everyone has in common―they came to Coupeville specifically for a cruise on the Suva―the town’s heritage vessel.

“Coupeville is a storybook town, the second in Washington State, and founded by a sea captain.” said Saia. “[Suva’s] the perfect size for our cove. Not too big, not too small―a Goldilocks boat.”

Dockside tours and sails will be available for a donation into October. (photo by Kim Tinuviel)

Dockside tours and sails will be available for a donation into October. (photo by Kim Tinuviel)

In 1960, the Suva was redrawn as a staysail schooner and over her lifetime had a total of three owners. She’s now owned by the Coupeville Maritime Heritage Foundation and docked at the historic Coupeville Wharf. Visitors are welcome to come down and admire her Gatsby-style charm with a hull and interior built entirely of old-growth teak. Dockside tours and sails are available by donation into October and all monies go into getting this beauty shipshape.

“We need to raise the final funds for plumbing, rewiring and a modern sealing application on the deck,” said Saia. “We want to keep her running for the next 90 years.”

The goal: get Suva officially certified by the U.S. Coast Guard and offer themed cruises in the spring. Think 1930’s crew uniforms and the music of Cab Calloway. It will be a new life for the schooner and a unique attraction.

Suva has already been busy this summer. She’s sailed in Whidbey Island Race Week and offered cruises during the Penn Cove Musselfest and Coupeville’s Arts & Crafts Festival. This fall, six educational classes for kids, with an environmental and marine focus, are scheduled.

“I’m a teacher. I like teaching,” said Saia. “Learning how to sail a boat this size is empowering.”

Manned by an all-volunteer crew, there are plenty of teaching opportunities—particularly, every Thursday night at 5:30 p.m., when “training sails” take crews out to get hands-on experience. New volunteers are always welcomed aboard; all that’s required is a life jacket and an appreciation for Suva.

The volunteer crew also enjoys sharing. When a passenger asks about Suva’s bell, Stephen Little Bear, who is earning hours toward his Captain’s License, explains its meaning. “Sailors worked in four-hour shifts and for each hour, they’d ring the bell―one, two three, four times.”

In this setting, on a pleasure cruise around Penn Cove, time doesn’t seem to move forward by the ringing of a bell or even by normal standards. It travels with the wind and the waves.

A trip on Suva means a trip to Neverland for this young sailor (photo by Kim Tinuviel)

After we disembark, Little Bear pulls my photographer and me aside to point out the neat “Flemish coil” the crew fashions on the dock. In the center is the beginning of the line with several spirals around it. Some sailors believe this coil symbolizes the beginning of a journey on the sea or a safe arrival home. For Suva it’s a little of both.

Cruises and dockside tours are given by donation. Suggested donation for a two-hour sail is $50. Daytime, evening or private sails can be arranged by calling 360-279-0855 or emailing To become a member of Coupeville Maritime Heritage Foundation or to volunteer, contact or call 360-929-7321.

Lara Dunning is a freelance writer. She has been published in The Crossing Guide, Anacortes Scene and Waggoner’s Pacific Northwest Boating. Her interests include young adult novels, history, hiking and locavore-inspired food.


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