Sailing True Love

The True Love sails near by the steep hillsides of Seneca Lake. Photo by Terry Mulee
by Laurel C. Wemett

The 96-year-old schooner True Love, docked in the harbor at Watkins Glen, has been sailing on Seneca Lake for 13 years. Over its long life it has achieved considerable notoriety, not just from its handsome appearance and racing prowess, but for its Hollywood connection.

True Love appeared as a small model in the 1940 romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story with Katherine Hepburn and served as a set in the 1956 musical High Society staring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, where the pair sang the Cole Porter song “True Love.”

Following this flirtation with Tinsel Town, the True Love was relocated to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. She sailed the Caribbean until 2008, when she was brought to the Seneca Harbor.

“The True Love is a tremendous asset to our community,” says Stephanie Specchio, director of marketing and communications of the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce. “Many of our visitors come looking to enjoy nature and unplug. Sailing on Seneca Lake is a perfect opportunity to do that.”

Last fall, Alice and Eric Zany of Switzerland celebrated their anniversary on board the True Love. From May through mid-October, the True Love’s passengers include couples eager to capture some of the boat’s mystique. “When we were planning our New York trip, we were looking for a unique way to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary,” recalls Eric Zany, “So when we found the True Love schooner, we were thrilled to book one of their last tours of the season. We both love old films and rented High Society to watch right before traveling to Watkins Glen.” The same week 20 other couples booked their anniversary cruises on the True Love. Bill Holgate, one of those who captains the True Love, mused “It must be a popular time to get married.”

Apart from the romantic setting, passengers enjoy a cruise up Seneca Lake for about 4 ½ miles, depending on the north-south breeze; a west wind can offer a sail straight up the lake. Views include Hector Falls, Riesling vineyards on the steep hillsides and the painted rocks from Native American folklore. Residential properties on the waterfront include a few stately homes.

“Schooner 101”

Landlubbers on the shore of Seneca Lake may be unable to differentiate the True Love from other sail- and wind-powered vessels gliding across the water. A schooner is a sailboat distinguished by having at least two masts, the vertical poles that support the sails. The forward mast (foremast) is shorter than any of the other masts.

Schooners became popular in North America beginning in the late 18th century because of their ability to move cargo across the Great Lakes, navigate the ocean and engage in coastal trade and fishing. They are known for being quite maneuverable and can be sailed by a smaller crew than some other vessels.

The True Love was designed by John G. Alden, an American naval architect and native of Troy. It was originally named Venona II when built in Wiscasset, Maine, by Pendleton Brothers Shipyard in 1926. From 1923 to 1932, Alden – a 2013 inductee into the National Sailing Hall of Fame – designed ten schooners all named Malabar, reportedly after a tidal island off the coast of Cape Cod that he thought sounded exotic. The Malabar VII was the first of seven sister ships, which included Venona II. Three would go on to win the prestigious and difficult Bermuda Races.

Captains and Crew

Terry Stewart of Seneca Sailing Adventures, LLC took possession of the True Love in January 2021. “It was very scary in the beginning because of the big investment,” he recalls. “We took it step by step, and it worked itself out.”

While Stewart grew up in Rochester, his family owned waterside property on the bluff of Keuka Lake, where neighbors offered the youngster opportunities to sail. He went on to become a New York State trooper and a member of the elite scuba team, participating in rescue and recovery efforts.

Stewart is no stranger to the True Love, having helped sail the boat for previous owners Lisa and Joshua Navone beginning when it came from St. Thomas in 2008. He has owned numerous vessels, including the Lee Sea Anne, a 38-foot full-keel, 12-ton sailboat, which he operated with his wife Lisa on Seneca Lake until 2014. The Lee Sea Anne daily carried up to six passengers on three-hour sails. By comparison, the 67-foot True Love is certified by the U.S. Coast Guard for 22 passengers.

After a quiet 2020, people were ready to go sailing last year because it offered outdoor activity. True Love captain duties are split between Stewart, Holgate and Dundee native Ray Brewer, who came onboard in 2021. 

“Captain Terry is a fantastic ambassador for our community,” says the Chamber’s Specchio. “He’s knowledgeable about the region and Seneca Lake and always eager to share interesting bits of information.”

Holgate, of Glenora Point, sailed as a teenager and raced a Hobie Cat, a small sailing catamaran, across Seneca Lake. A successful career selling marine products prepared him to oversee important maintenance and upkeep issues for the True Love. A graduate of the Chapman School of Seamanship, Holgate was at the True Love’s helm in the Annual Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race in 2019, when it won in its class.

Eight college-aged students make up the crew of the schooner, with two assisting on each cruise. Over 160 days in the water in 2021, they led 348 tours with a total of 6,000 passengers.

“The best part is the experience of being out here on the water with happy people,” says crew member Katie Alley who has a degree in graphic arts and handles social media for the True Love. Josh Updyke, a Watkins Glen native, has plans to enlist in the Coast Guard and describes sailing as calming and relaxing.

Stewart reflects, “The True Love has a life of her own which we just go with. She has traversed the East coast many times and has had hundreds of thousands of guests aboard who all have made a memory on her. Many return to re-establish their original happy time on her. We hope to see her

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