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A kindred Spirit

Part one of a two-part series

There was a time when, walking down East Bay Street, one needed only look toward the water to see craning masts more numerous than the city’s church steeples. Early morning found deckhands preparing docked boats for voyage before new vessels arrived to take their place. Giant sails powering ships of various designs blessed the harbor by midday; goods from around the world dispersed into city streets and markets. Many ships departed filled with rice and cotton. The Battery promenade opened upon a seascape outlined by marsh and barrier islands, without a bridge in sight. Winding waterways reached far into Charleston’s identity.

Charleston remains one of America’s most important ports, although the ships look slightly different and (most) no longer stop at the peninsula. We still encounter the ocean daily, whether on the beach, a boat ride, or simply eating the fried shrimp on our plate. We have stayed in the same place, but our maritime history and tradition have gradually receded from the public eye; though many Charlestonians can drive a motorboat and tie up to a cleat, few possess the knowledge or experience to crew a large sailing vessel. The opportunity has all but disappeared.

From the keel up

Roughly two decades ago, you might have strolled by Ansonborough Field and seen a massive keel, flanked by sailors. Progress on the craft was slow, unorganized and unaided by funding. But look toward the Charleston Maritime Center today during the summer and you will find a finely-crafted American schooner built around that same keel. She’s equally stunning as she is seaworthy. The Spirit of South Carolina is back in the harbor.

In 2000, word circulated about a group of local sailors building a tall ship. Charlie Sneed, Mark Bayne and friends had the vision to assemble a working memorial to the shipbuilding heritage that helped our city grow. Funding was low at first until several people decided to invest the time and money necessary to give the project momentum. Pierre Manigault, Teddy Turner and Hank Hofford ultimately stuck around to ensure its completion.

They formed the South Carolina Maritime Foundation, which gained its 501(c)3 nonprofit status around the time of its first sizeable donation. Hofford became the group’s director and set out to devise a fundraising plan. Calculating the building cost at nearly $6 million, the Foundation formed a board of influential people who possessed an interest in the project and the ability to elicit necessary funding. The idea hinged on developing sustainable educational programs for South Carolina’s youth, in which they would have the unique opportunity to learn aboard a traditional vessel and gain an appreciation for its history.

Spirit’s luck rose exponentially when husband-and-wife team Brad and Meghan Van Liew became marketing directors for the Foundation. Teddy Turner approached Brad with the hope that some new blood could revitalize the project’s energy and maintain excitement, as the duo had extensive experience fundraising for their own solo sailing ventures around the world. A West Coast transplant, Brad saw it as a “great opportunity to get involved in the community and make a difference.”

Members of the Foundation and board worked to hold a handful of fundraising events each year that would engage the public, like the annual Spirit Ball, a black-tie affair that hosted hundreds of donors. Tall Ships Charleston and the Maritime Festival also became event partners and sources of revenue.

A path to the sea

Although the notion of hearkening back to a lost era and creating a beautiful watercraft storied by the hands that made her swells the heart with romantic pride, such an undertaking comes at a cost. Construction is fueled by philanthropy. Many generous donors saw value in the endeavor and offered long-term assistance. Both the Turner and Manigault families became significant contributors as well, responsible in a large way for the project’s success.

As donations came in, construction began in earnest. The team needed a design from which to model and Sneed found plans for the old pilot schooner Frances Elizabeth, which was built in 1879 in the former Pregnall Shipyard, just steps away from the new work site. The Frances Elizabeth, in turn, was modeled after the America, an earlier 19th century racing boat.

The American schooner originated in 18th century Massachusetts. Quickly, it became the quintessential American sailing vessel, with a shallower draft for shallow coastal waters and built with speed in mind. It could handle the variety of winds involved in coastal sailing that posed difficulties for ships with square-rigged sails. Charleston harbor saw many schooners, as they were effective trading ships, but our waters also held numerous pilot schooners, like the Frances Elizabeth, that were responsible for transporting pilots to incoming vessels, helping them navigate safely into port. The first pilot to hail the inbound ship got the job, so pilot schooners were built to be exceptionally seaworthy and fast.

The Maritime Foundation hired Lowcountry shipwright Mark Bayne to lead the project. After talking with the Pregnall family, gathering information on the original Frances Elizabeth and collecting drawings from Smithsonian archives, Bayne outlined a new design that would be almost twice as long and three times as heavy. Quickly, the inaugural visionary group of sailors grew into a coalition of shipwrights and volunteers. Indeed, the finished product would be South Carolina inside and out.

The keel is made of purpleheart, a wood known for its toughness and water resistance. The ribs, frames, planks and interior finish are shaped from South Carolina live oak, cypress and longleaf yellow pine. Just like shipbuilders 200 years prior, workers found wood in nearby forests and used naturally-curved pieces of oak for the boat’s ribs.

When people join together on a mission, they do so driven by movement in their souls. In Charleston, we take care of our own and a spirit seemed to swell amid those who came and carried the project along. Hofford recalls shipbuilders from across the Lowcountry and the state heeding the call for all hands on deck — a force that became about 100 volunteers. Local business owners did their part, like John Royall of Royall Ace Hardware who donated a hefty supply of tools.

Tradition played a large role in how the Spirit was built and how she is meant to be viewed. However, she combines old craftsmanship with modern technology. Her twin Cummins diesel engines and modern galley outfit her for the present, while her rig and sail plan remain traditional. Her construction proudly incorporates those elements that made the Frances Elizabeth a fast, capable vessel, but the Spirit is designed as her own ship with its own personality.

On March 4, 2007, the largest barge-crane on the East Coast lowered the Spirit of South Carolina into the sea near the Maritime Center. A crowd stood watch at the Port Authority terminal and celebrated the culmination of years’ labor. A tall ship had not been built around Charleston for decades and yet again, a handcrafted hull graced our waters. Once afloat, John Cameron of the Coast Guard helped ensure that the boat met all legal standards and the masts, booms and bowsprit were installed along with extensive rigging. Three months later, she docked at home outside the Maritime Center.

The Spirit was born from a desire to honor Charleston’s largely overlooked shipbuilding history. But beyond that, she was meant to provide students with unique educational opportunities. When part of a crew, you must perform tasks in a challenging environment where no two days are the same. All labor is done by hand and requires constant dedication to individual responsibilities and group work. The experience brings students or any participant, out of their comfort zone and invites them into an interdisciplinary curriculum centered around the sea. These programs are designed with the goal of inspiring students to overcome the challenges they face, thus instilling pride and confidence in their achievements.

Pierre Manigault recounts his own experience on a similar ship when he was in college. “Math was celestial navigation. English Literature was reading Moby Dick. Learning was for a purpose and it made sense. That’s why I believed in this program so much as an opportunity for young people to realize their ability.”

Navigating the future

For seven years — through 2014 — the program hosted more than 9,500 students. However, once the boat is built, it must be maintained. However, the nationwide recession coupled with mounting debts forced the Maritime Foundation to sell the boat Fundraising had consisted partly of numerous five-year pledges, all of which ended around the time the economy sank and new donors couldn’t afford to come on board.

Thankfully, local businessmen Mike Bennett and Tommy Baker both felt that the Spirit needed to stay in Charleston waters and they bought the ship at an auction for $440,000 in 2015. After a few years, they donated it to the newly formed nonprofit (and current owner), Spirit of South Carolina, Inc. The educational future of the ship is looking bright as it has recently established a partnership with the College of Charleston to host semester-long trips for students.

At the waterfront, I watch two masts saluting our sky. The sun shines on a 140-foot vessel moving through the harbor and illuminates six striking sails. She reminds me of something I have never seen.

I walk through the city today and it is the same land surrounded by the same sea that existed upon its founding. I can hop on my 17-foot motorboat, cruise toward Fort Sumter and look back at the outline of this place, church steeples still rising above the rest — some things aren’t meant to change. I love a Bloody Mary on Sunday and I take my fried chicken with a side of cornbread. I smile at people on the street because that’s what we do.

Let’s not forget the history that built our home by the sea. We know it, we learn from it and we honor it. If you find yourself watching a topsail American schooner coming into port, be proud and moved by the Spirit of South Carolina.

To be continued, with an article about the actual experience of sailing the Spirit of S.C.

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