Skip to main content

Historic schooner gets the go-ahead for restoration

The Ernestina-Morrissey will undergo a $6 million restoration at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine.

When Julius Britto spoke at the schooner Ernestina-Morrissey’s restoration celebration at the New Bedford (Massachusetts) Whaling Museum late last year, it was the fulfillment of a commitment he had made 40 years ago to keep reminding Americans of their historic ties to Cape Verde.

The grandson of Cape Verdean immigrants, Britto sees the 120-year-old Ernestina-Morrissey as a piece of living history, a jack of many trades that has worked as a fishing schooner, an Arctic explorer, a World War II supply and survey ship, a Cape Verde packet schooner and a Massachusetts school ship. “She’s done so many things in her history,” says Britto, president of the Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey Association, an advocate for the boat’s restoration.

She was built for the Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing fleet in 1894 at the James & Tarr Shipyard in Essex, Massachusetts. Named the Effie M. Morrissey then, she worked the Grand Banks for J.F. Wonson & Co. and Capt. William Morrissey, once reaching a speed of 16 knots while posting a record run from Portland, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Under Arctic explorer Capt. Bob Bartlett of Brigus, Newfoundland, she undertook scientific expeditions into the north high latitudes and sailed within 578 miles of the North Pole. During World War II she entered U.S. Navy service, doing hydrographic work off Greenland and serving as a supply ship to U.S. bases there and in the Arctic. Later, under the ownership of Cape Verdean Capt. Henrique Mendes, she engaged in inter-island commerce and sailed across the Atlantic, bringing immigrants to the United States.

Returned to the United States in 1982 as a gift from the Cape Verdean people, she sailed as a Massachusetts school ship until 2005, when the Coast Guard declined to renew her certification as a small passenger and sailing school vessel because she was in poor condition. For much of the past 10 years, Ernestina — a National Historic Landmark and Massachusetts’ state ship — has worked as a dockside attraction at the State Pier in New Bedford while the state of Massachusetts — the vessel’s owner — and friends of the schooner tried during hard times to raise money for a full restoration.

It was a long time coming, but all except $415,000 of the $6 million needed to restore the wood-hulled two-master is on the table. Massachusetts kicked in $2.5 million, and philanthropists Gerry Lenfest, owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Robert Hildreth, of Boston, donated $2.8 million. The association has raised $285,000 and is committed to raising $415,000 more to finish the fundraising.

Meanwhile, Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine was selected for the two- to three-year restoration. It will include, among other things, a redesign of the keel to “lower the ballast’s center of gravity,” rearranging the watertight bulkheads to meet current standards, replacing clamps and hanging knees, and restoring her lines and profile to bring her back to her original design.

Julius Britto takes part in a volunteer workday aboard the 121-year-old schooner Ernestina-Morrissey.

After the schooner leaves the shipyard, Britto says, she will become a sail-training ship for cadets at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay during the school year. Ernestina-Morrissey will sail the Atlantic again, visiting ports in New England. Massachusetts Maritime has committed to maintaining her. In the summer, Britto says, the ship will resume her duties as Massachusetts’ tall ship and sail out of New Bedford, doing educational programs and giving tours. “We’ve been working toward permanency, stability,” Britto says, financial stability in particular. “It has been elusive.” He is hoping that the partnership with Massachusetts Maritime will provide that stability. “This is a milestone.”

Britto credits a lot of people, organizations and agencies with saving Ernestina-Morrissey: Hildreth and Lenfest; the Schooner Ernestina Commission, a state group tasked with oversight of the vessel; the association’s membership and donors; Massachusetts Maritime Academy; the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, through whose budget the ship is funded; Gov. Deval Patrick, who pried the state money loose; and New Bedford’s state senator, Mark Montigny, who has been an advocate for the ship because of her many careers and the many points at which she touches people. “She brings people together,” Britto says.

Britto, whose grandfather was a whaler in the Cape Verde islands, first saw Ernestina — the name Mendes gave her — when he responded to an invitation to visit Cape Verde in 1975 to celebrate its independence. She was in bad shape and needed repairs that were made before she came to America in 1982. Now Britto will see her fixed up again. “We’re turning the page,” he says. “We’ll see what the next chapter is going to be.”

March 2015 issue