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Fabled schooner Ernestina-Morrissey has a new mission

The 156-foot Ernestina-Morrissey was built in Essex, Massachusetts, in 1894. Project manager Eric Graves is overseeing her restoration at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine.

The drive to Boothbay Harbor, Maine — 10 miles down a peninsula and past the rocky islets wonderfully named The Cuckolds — terminates in a narrow network of lanes paralleling the undulating shore.

The flavor is distinctively maritime. A salty tang in the air and vintage homes presiding over a sea vista evoke families awaiting the return of ancient mariners. At the heart of the shoreline is Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, one of the village’s oldest boatbuilding yards still in operation, well-known for restorations of several notable boats, such as Alera, hull No. 1 of the New York 30, designed more than a century ago by Nathanael Herreshoff, and for the construction of Discovery, a replica of one of the three ships that brought English colonists to Virginia and an exhibit at the Jamestown Settlement living history museum. Many buildings are as historic as the boats — cavernous and old-beamed — with original hand-cranked saws that are still used to carve timbers.

Obscured by the street-side buildings and the incline to the shore is an astonishing sight. The 156-foot Ernestina-Morrissey is an Essex, Massachusetts, fishing schooner built in 1894. The black-hulled wooden ship arrived early in 2015 and now sits on blocks, her prow sweeping forward as though eager to sail again.

And that’s why she’s here. This is a storied boat in a multichapter life spanning three oceans, through three centuries. She’s considered one of the nation’s most historically significant ships, but deterioration consigned her to life as a shoreside attraction in 2004. Now she’s undergoing a $6 million restoration that will again make her seaworthy, and as the training ship of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and a public outreach vessel of the state, she will continue to live in the hands of coming generations.

The yard’s manager, Eric Graves, greets me in his office and takes me down a narrow walkway to the schooner. This is actually the second time she’s been here. First-phase restoration of the bow, foredeck and exterior planking alongside the foredeck took place in 2008. The rest of the ship also needed work, but funds dried up during the recession. In 2014 the Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey Association and the state of Massachusetts came up with funds to complete the job, which is extensive.

Graves’ crew started by removing planks and frames gone punky over the years. Numbers are chalked on the lower hull to indicate frame stations. The massive keel can be seen where the garboards were removed.

An inveterate ballcap-wearer who sports a modest Van Dyke, Graves is a friendly fellow who nevertheless gives the impression that he’s more comfortable communing with boats than people. Trained as a marine engineer and boatbuilder, he’s worked on everything from systems engineering and computer-aided design for Navy destroyers to the hands-on construction of composite sailboats.

Graves won’t allow me on deck for liability reasons, but I get to peek through an access point in the hull. The floor has been removed, revealing the keelson and other members, blackened and splintered with age. I admire the ship’s old bones — some original, others part of a century’s worth of repairs. Starkly revealed in the light of day, they evoke the original builders, working through the New England winter of 1893-94 to launch a ship that started life like thousands of others. Unknown to them, this schooner — a commonplace design and craft for its day — would become a star as it sailed through history.

Ross Craft Branch works on cutting patterns from the lofting.

The ship “was patched together like an old pair of pants. Sometimes they become more patch than pants,” says Harold Burnham, who commutes weekly to the yard from Essex, his hometown, as the project’s lead consultant. “At a certain point it becomes more practical and sensible to do a major restoration that, with respect for the past, meets the demands that will be placed on it in this modern era.”

There’s probably no one better suited to lead the project than Burnham, an 11th-generation member of a shipbuilding family rooted in Essex, the birthplace of approximately 4,000 schooners similar to Ernestina-Morrissey. A 2012 National Heritage Fellow and a master shipwright, he continues to produce wooden vessels using traditional designs and techniques, putting a lifetime of research into their history.

“We’re dealing with things that were alive once,” he says about wood. “It moves, it shrinks and swells, and understanding all that is one of the things I think is coolest about shipbuilding.”

Only the best wood is going into the project — thousands of board feet of Danish Navy oak and North American oak, to be sawn from enormous slabs weighing 300 to 400 pounds each. The Danish wood is a story in itself, planted more than 100 years ago specifically to maintain Denmark’s naval fleet, and today selectively cut for special projects. Burnham credits his father, Charles, his mentor, Brad Story — both also deeply rooted in Essex boatbuilding — and others for sharing their knowledge of traditional boatbuilding. That sort of deep knowledge, passed down through generations, has made it possible to ensure that the restoration will be historically accurate while deploying a mix of old-fashioned and modern techniques — wooden fastenings called treenails, or “trunnels,” on the one hand, modern epoxies on the other.

Burnham explains that the ship was designed by George “Mel” McClain, originally from Bremen Long Island, Maine, in a region central to the development of the Friendship sloop — the original lobster-fishing boat. “There’s definitely a connection,” Burnham says of McLain’s schooners and the Friendship style, with its long overhangs.

McLain’s influences also included the Fredonia-style schooner, designed by America’s Cup yacht designer Edward Burgess of Boston. The original Fredonia, launched in 1889, was a yacht known for its speed and fine lines. It was refitted for offshore fishing and inspired subsequent designs by others.

Ernestina-Morrissey’s stern is worn but pretty

“Plagiarism is basic to all culture, someone once said,” Burnham notes. “As soon as somebody came up with a good idea, it was instantly copied.”

By the mid-19th century, Gloucester, Massachusetts, was a fishing center. Shipbuilding for the trade clustered in nearby Essex. The focus was large schooners of 100 feet or more, designed to withstand the rigors of traveling between New England and the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, one of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

These large builds replaced the smaller inshore fishing vessels of Colonial days, and they were key to feeding the expansion of urban and inland markets. McClain at this time was at the peak of his design career. He had fished in Gloucester and understood the perils of the sea. “The men who command and man these craft are my friends; many have been my shipmates in days gone by. Would I be liable to model for them vessels of unsafe design?” he once said.

Ernestina-Morrissey was launched as Effie M. Morrissey, built by the James & Tarr shipyard. Launched for Capt. William E. Morrissey and the John F. Wonson Co. of Gloucester and named after Morrissey’s daughter, the ship immediately proved fast and capacious as a dory trawler. Her first haul, 250,000 pounds of cod, was the largest any schooner brought in that month. Morrissey continued fishing until 1925 and was then sold to Newfoundland-born Arctic explorer Robert Bartlett. Until then, Bartlett had traveled with Adm. Robert Peary — he was navigator to Peary and Matthew Henson on their North Pole excursion in 1909 — and performed other maritime work.

When Bartlett acquired the Morrissey, the Arctic was less about heroic adventures and more the object of scientific interest. Bartlett found financing for a Greenland expedition and refitted the schooner to withstand polar sailing. Annually sailing above the Arctic Circle for the next 20 years, he voyaged as far west as the Bering Strait. He covered more than 25,000 miles and set a record for the northernmost point reached by wooden ship, coming within 635 miles of the North Pole. Backed by major American research and exploration institutions for survey and collection work, Bartlett and Morrissey in the 1920s and ’30s were as famous as Jacques Cousteau and Calypso were in later decades. Crowds met their autumn returns to New York Harbor; their adventures were chronicled in magazine articles, books, newsreels and the New York Times. 

Much of the wood for the restoration — such as this piece for the keel — comes from massive American oaks and oak trees planted 100 years ago specifically for the Danish naval fleet’s use.

In the lead-up to U.S. involvement in World War II, Bartlett worked for the government, scouting radio transmission conditions, northern air routes and seaward approaches to northern air bases for fighter planes en route to Europe. When Bartlett died, a year after the war ended, three Navy veterans purchased Morrissey for a tropical cruise. She was taking on water by the time they reached Bermuda. They made it to New York for repairs, but a fire in 1947 scuttled and nearly destroyed her. Raised and towed to Connecticut, she changed hands several times, ending up with Henrique Mendes.

Mendes was from Cape Verde, an archipelago off West Africa. He arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1898, took a job on a whaling ship and followed other pursuits. Mendes repaired Morrissey, renamed her Ernestina after his daughter and, from 1948 to 1965 took part in the packet trade, carrying immigrants and goods between Cape Verde and the United States. Ernestina was the last sailing ship in regular service to carry immigrants across the Atlantic to the States.

By 1965, Ernestina was in sad shape, her decks faded and splintered, paint buckled, sails torn. In 1977, after several more changes of ownership, she was purchased by the Republic of Cape Verde. In subsequent years, the republic gifted the schooner to the people of the United States. A major multiyear restoration, funded primarily by the Cape Verde government with support from the U.S.-based Friends of Ernestina-Morrissey Group and accomplished in Cape Verde, allowed for her return in 1982.

The Schooner Ernestina Commission was established with the authority to accept title and oversee and administer funds and programs, and the city of New Bedford pledged a permanent berth. (The vessel today is under the stewardship of the Schooner Ernestina Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.) Her return was historic; the ship carried pigs and chickens, and the crew navigated by sextant. A crowd of more than 2,000 met the ship’s arrival with blaring car horns, cheers and chants.

Ernestina’s proud bow will soon be back in the water, working hard as a Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadet training vessel and doing public outreach.

Additional rehabilitation and designation as a National Historic Landmark and the Official Vessel of The Commonwealth followed. Ernestina became a landmark at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, received Coast Guard certification and plied the waters as a sail-training ship, living history museum and goodwill ambassador, visiting ports along the Eastern Seaboard.

By 2004 considerable deterioration had set in, and Ernestina lost her license to sail. Although she remained popular as a dockside attraction, fans wanted to see her sailing. The 2008 phase of the current restoration, which had tackled the bow, foredeck and exterior planking, was a good start. And in 2014 Bob Hildreth, a founder and vice president of the Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey Association, and H. Gerry Lenfest, a Philadelphia philanthropist acquainted as a child with Bartlett, the Arctic explorer, committed $2.8 million to continue the refit. The state kicked in $2.5 million, and SEMA committed to raising an additional $1 million.

The work is needed not only for the satisfaction of fans of the newly renamed Ernestina-Morrissey, but also for the ship itself, explains Matthew Stackpole, a maritime historian and consultant on the restoration. In a real sense, despite the rigors of sailing the North Atlantic and the frozen north, the schooner’s survival has been most challenged during her time as a shoreside exhibit.

“The greatest danger to wooden vessels is rot, and the greatest cause of rot is fresh water and lack of ventilation,” Stackpole says. “Salt water is a friend to wooden ships, and fresh water is the enemy,” he adds, pointing out the cons of the ship’s dockside years. “You don’t have the restorative impact of salt water washing over her. And when you’re using the boat, you’re paying attention to it, and that means the level of maintenance is higher.”

 Still, there’s a puzzle: Why has Ernestina-Morrissey survived all these years, when other grand, old sailing vessels disappeared? “Good owners and having a function,” Stackpole says. “Technology changes and economics resulted in many sailing vessels being replaced by vessels with engines. Some were converted to barges while others were just abandoned, with only a few remaining from what was a gigantic fleet. The magic to still being around is having some kind of use that makes it necessary for the vessel to be actively maintained and sailed. There’s an emotional connection for people who are in love with these vessels. And now she’ll be going to a new life, training next generations to be maritime officers. She has a renewed reason for being, she’s making a difference and she’ll be at sea again.”

Down at the yard, gazing at Ernestina-Morrissey, I’m struck by the beauty of her weather-beaten appearance, her decrepitude seeming to shine a light on her valiant survival. In a few years, much of her will be new — but a historically faithful new. Only then will she be able to continue her sail through history yet to come.

“There’s nothing like being on the real thing,” says Stackpole. “I call it the power of the authentic. In terms of keeping history alive, she’s doing that.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.

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These historic photos from the Monroe Grey Barnard Arctic expedition show crew pulling the schooner Effie M. Morrissey out of the ice. Here, Ernestina leads the Pride of Baltimore in a Gloucester schooner race.