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Sailing ‘ambassador’ takes to the water

Tall ship Spirit of South Carolina to visit ports along the East Coast and winter in the Caribbean

Tall ship Spirit of South Carolina to visit ports along the East Coast and winter in the Caribbean

What would lead a celebrated world champion solo circumnavigator from California, used to sailing cutting-edge yachts, to front for a tall ship project in Charleston, S.C., based on a 19th-century design?

“After my second Around Alone,” says Brad Van Liew, who won the Open 50 class in the 2002-2003 Around Alone, “I decided I wanted to stop risking my life in the Southern Ocean as a living and become a daddy and start a program.”

He adds that he was further motivated when he had a southern yachtsman named “Teddy Turner ...come to me and say, ‘There’s this organization in Charleston that I really want to succeed.’ ”

The organization is the South Carolina Maritime Foundation. On March 4 it launched the 140-foot tall ship Spirit of South Carolina, a vessel destined to serve as an ambassador for the adopted home state of Van Liew and his wife, Meghan, and as a sail training vessel and second chance for troubled youth.

The Spirit, built with 100,000 man-hours of work and a budget of $4 million, is but one of the foundation’s projects. Others include operating Charleston Race Week and the Charleston to Bermuda Race.

“The launching [of Spirit] is a huge deal, but it’s a stepping stone to the ultimate goal,” says Van Liew, the foundation’s executive director. “The ultimate goal, the mission of this organization, will have been met when this ship is effectively changing kids’ lives, and I mean really changing them. If it’s not changing lives of at-risk [students] and large groups of public school students from around the state of South Carolina, then we haven’t done our job yet. To me, it’s really important that we get to that spot.”

Spirit will begin hosting classes of fifth and sixth grade students in the fall, says Sarah Piwinski, the foundation’s director of education.

“Our goals are just to give them a big hands-on experience and give them meaning to what they are learning in the classroom,” she says.

Piwinski, who has been an educator aboard other tall ships, says the summer months of 2007 will be spent introducing educators and administrators to the ship. When the middle school students board in the fall, a “professional” crew of nine will greet them, including the captain, three mates, three deck hands who are also educators, a head educator and a cook. The first lessons will deal with such basic concepts as simple machines: blocks and tackle, for example, she says.

On overnight cruises, Spirit will host 19 students, while about 40 will be aboard for day trips, Piwinski says. As the program advances, the students will range from fifth grade through college undergraduates, she says.

“[Spirit] will spend its summers in the Northeast and will do tall ship tours,” Van Liew says, “and it will go to the Caribbean in the winter with an at-risk program.” A partnership between the foundation, ClemsonUniversity and law enforcement is developing a program to deal with troubled youth, he explains. The students will come from a National Guard program “where these kids were taken off street corners. They were having problems with society and were on their way to jail but were able to get taken out of their risky situations before they had to be taken to jail,” he says.

“They will go through a boot camp in preparation for coming to us,” says Van Liew. “If they choose this program, they train with us and do a two-month program in the Caribbean, seldom touching a place with population. When they come back, we place them in internships around the community.”

He says the program will be “low volume, high impact,” dealing with up to 19 at-risk students at a time.

Van Liew says he and his wife fell in love with Charleston when it was the starting and finishing port for the 1998-1999 Around Alone, in which he finished third in an Open 50. “[Charleston] was more like San Diego was when I was a kid. When Meghan and I left San Diego to start our life with children, Charleston was on the short list.”

What they found in South Carolina was an area of the country not yet touched by the tall ship movement, Van Liew says. “In the southeast, the impact a tall ship can make in a community is not understood. That’s about to change.” Spirit of South Carolina is unique, he says, because, “It’s the only show in town, man.”

The foundation is attempting to raise the final $700,000 of its budget to rig the ship, following the launch. “It should prove to be kind of the queen of the [tall ship] fleet,” Van Liew says. “The level of finish is very high. It won’t have the look, feel, patina of most of your educational tall ships; more of one of the ambassadorial tall ships [with] glitz and glam that typically goes into state-owned vessels.” But, he adds, “its primary mission will be education.”