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A free spirit

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After a visit to New England for some TLC, South Carolina’s tall ship goes back to work

Thanks to a crew of dedicated hearts and souls — and a substantial financial commitment — the spirit is back in the Spirit of South Carolina.

After a summer’s journey north to Newport, Rhode Island, for a haulout and refit, the 140-foot (sparred length) two-masted schooner that is the tall ship ambassador of the Palmetto State is ready for the 2016 season of sail training and charter. It’s a positive turn of events that new owners Tommy Baker and Michael Bennett and a fleet of supporters are thrilled to see bring to a close a four-year period when the boat sat idle under bank ownership in Charleston. “Hundreds of volunteers love that boat and have given it their time and energy,” says Baker. “It belongs to all of us. That’s the beauty of the Spirit of South Carolina.”

The ship will stay true to its mission, Baker adds. “That kids can get on the boat, stand watch, eat the same food, share and be educated — that’s the value,” he says. “Everyone will have a hand in teaching the kids and giving them a lifelong lesson they’ll never forget. Mike and I think of it as belonging to the state of South Carolina and its people. He and I are just custodians. We are going to maintain it and keep it in great shape and at some point pass it back to the state.”

Even before its launch in 2007, the striking Spirit — which measures 90 feet on deck — consistently inspired an ever-growing network of friends, devoted volunteers and marine industry craftsmen. It was designed by Peter Boudreau and Andrew Davis, who took inspiration for its lines from the Frances Elizabeth, a pilot schooner that operated in Charleston Harbor in the late 1800s. Built by Sea Island Boatworks under the direction of shipwright Mark Bayne, the wooden schooner was launched to much public fanfare and was a celebrated favorite of the waterfront community in Charleston, used mainly for hands-on youth education.

Financial problems forced its previous caretaker, the South Carolina Maritime Foundation, to put the ship up for sale to cover the debt. TD Bank, which held the note on the vessel, auctioned it in June 2014, and Baker and Bennett bought it for $440,000. Baker owns Baker Motor Co., a luxury auto dealership with locations in Charleston and Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Bennett is a local real estate investor.

Another of Spirit’s fans is Charlie Dana, president of Newport (Rhode Island) Shipyard, a longtime friend of Baker’s and a board member of Spirit of South Carolina LLC, the boat’s current nonprofit operator. Dana ensured that the boat would be welcome at the yard while work was completed. “There was no other place to take it other than the Newport Shipyard,” Baker says. “I knew the best work would be done by the best sailors. They gave it their all; they understand the boat. It’s the finest schooner out there.”

George Zachorne holds a serving mallet.

Labor Of Love

The crew and others who work on the Spirit of South Carolina are eager to agree. “Seventy five percent of what was needed was cosmetic,” says Spirit’s captain, Christopher Trandell. “A volunteer crew had lived aboard while the bank owned her. They ran the engines, operated the systems and washed the decks. She was in much better shape than other ships in her circumstances.”

While the wooden pilot schooner was drydocked from August through November 2015, Trandell, whose background is in big traditional schooners, and a revolving crew of paid shipmates, craftsmen and volunteers worked around the clock. “She needed paint, tar in the rigging, updating and love,” Trandell says. “They definitely behave differently if you put love in them.”

Wickford’s wizards Servicing the standing and running rigging on the Spirit of South Carolina was a huge effort, and one aspect of the project — replacing the schooner’s head rig — was a job unto itself, requiring comprehensive agility in the skill of marlinspike seamanship. For that task, project overseers turned to father-son duo George and Dominic Zachorne, who run one of the busiest small wooden boatbuilding shops in New England. In addition to building new wooden boats and restoring old ones at their Wickford, Rhode Island operation, the Zachornes, particularly Dominic, have vast experience making and replacing traditional rigging for fishing boats and big schooners; it’s an intricate craft that relies on a mind that works like a computer and a hand whose motion is as deft as a sculptor’s. Proper maintenance of a traditional head rig of wire and rope is necessary to keep it from chafing and rotting. For the Spirit of South Carolina, it started with cutting new wire shrouds to support the bowsprit and other spars on the bow, such as the jib boom, which extends forward of the bowsprit. The bowsprit and jib boom shrouds needed replacement, as did the martingale backstays and headstays. The next part of the project involved worming, parceling and serving the wire. This consists of laying in and winding marline between wire strands (worming), then wrapping tarred canvas or tape around the wormed wire (parceling) and, lastly, tightly winding with a mallet more marline over the length of wire (serving). Once all of the wire and rope are cut, spliced and served, the pieces are ready to be installed on the bow. As with the volunteers who showed up to lend a hand aboard the Spirit in Charleston and Newport, Rhode Island, this job inspired a revolving circle of friends who stopped by the Zachornes’ shop on the Wickford waterfront. “I ended up with a pile of people who were very fascinated by the work,” Dominic Zachorne says. “They’d come around and want to play, so I tried to find room for everybody.” It was all-consuming and took the Zachornes away from other late-summer and early-fall projects, among them the manuscript of a book Dominic has written based on his experiences rigging topsail schooners. And it was well worth it. “The Spirit job was a unique opportunity,” he says. “It’s a tall ship, and they’re few and far between. … And it’s a big project, which you don’t always get to work on. … It would have been a heartbreak to turn away. What’s staying up late a couple of nights? It’s actually fun, and it’s worth it. What’s the alternative? I suppose I could go be a greeter at Walmart.” — E.L.

Also during the Rhode Island sojourn, the bottom was repainted; the topsides and areas below deck were revarnished; the traditional running rigging and standing rigging were pulled, with the standing rigging serviced and the running rigging, including the head rig, entirely replaced.

Other work included inspection of the running gear; inspection and replacement of a few planks on the port quarter and transom; replacement of zincs; and inspection and replacement of through-hulls and valves, as needed.

“Nothing extraordinary” is how subcontractor Russell Bostock described the chores he oversaw. Bostock, who was construction superintendent of the sailing education vessel Oliver Hazard Perry, the official tall ship of Rhode Island, was responsible for the rigging and hull work on Spirit, as well as ensuring that the ship satisfied inspection standards of the Coast Guard for sailing school certification.

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He estimated that, in terms of running rigging, the schooner required nearly 8,000 feet of new line. For the replacement of the traditional standing head rig, he acquired 260 feet of wire rope and 30 pounds of tarred marline, the twine used in the processes of worming, parceling and serving, which strengthens, protects and stiffens wire and rope. For that job, Bostock sought out the father-son team of George and Dominic Zachorne, who run a wooden boatbuilding shop in Wickford, Rhode Island.

“They were a good find,” Bostock says. “They’re really talented. It’s in their blood.”

The daily display of such expertise by the Zachornes and other skilled craftsmen who worked on Spirit is what fuels the fancy of volunteers such as retiree Brian Oliver. He’d flown to Rhode Island to help get the ship ready for the trip south and to do the delivery. “I’ve been dreaming of this since I was 12,” Oliver says, taking a break from learning how to splice rope and seize dead-eyes. “If I had known I could have done this back then, I’d probably have led a different life.

Ship’s cook Raymond Krugger readies the chow.

“I’m from the South, and there aren’t many tall ships there,” he adds. “I’ve been following the Spirit since it first set sail in 2007. It broke my heart when I heard it was going up for auction.”

While Oliver continued to take direction on deck, cook Raymond Krugger fixed lunch below in the galley. Krugger, whose background includes cooking for crew aboard such schooners as the Spirit of Massachusetts, Denis Sullivan and Harvey Gamage, so enjoys his work that he can’t imagine leading any other kind of life, which is a good thing because, as Oliver points out, “The cook is the single most important man for crew morale.”

And with that, the bell below sounded, and everyone, from skipper to mate and volunteers, were energized again and headed for the saloon, where sustenance would help them keep working.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.