Seaport museum to restore dragger

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The 60-foot Eastern-rig dragger Roann plied New England waters for five decades, trawling for flounder, cod and haddock. Though an ordinary vessel then — one of hundreds of similar vessels — Roann is a star now.

Roann is one of the last surviving examples of the fishing vessels that replaced sailing schooners, and she will be the first of her kind to be displayed at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn.

Some 250 spectators gathered on a blustery winter day Dec. 30 at the Seaport to watch as the dragger was ceremoniously hauled out by crane. Roann is the next restoration project to be undertaken at the H.B. duPont Preservation Shipyard.

“If these old timbers could talk, what stories they could tell,” said Seaport president Douglas Teeson, who addressed the crowd before the nearly 60-year-old vessel was lifted by crane.

Though more contemporary than most of the other vessels at the museum, Seaport officials say preservation of Roann is a logical step since she represents the shift from sail to power, and from baited hooks to nets in the New England fishing industry.

“We had debate amongst [ourselves] of the historical significance of Roann,” says shipyard director Quentin Snediker. “Even in our own minds it took a while to grasp the concept of the historical value of Roann.”

In fact, Seaport officials have applied to the National Park Service to have the vessel named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Eastern rig draggers originated in the 1920s. Powered by a diesel engine, and dragging a large conical fishnet called an otter trawl along the seabed, Roann and her crew of three could catch cod and haddock twice as fast as dorymen.

Roann was designed in 1944 by Albert Condon, and built three years later at the Newbert and Wallace yard in Thomaston, Maine, which built dozens of draggers. The vessel has an aft helm, and her working deck and trawl nets amidships, like the schooners just before her time.

Her first owner, Roy Campbell of Vineyard Haven, Mass., fished the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, dragging for flounder, cod and haddock. Her second and third owners, the late Chet Westcott and Tom Williams respectively, fished from Point Judith, R.I.

Wooden eastern rig draggers were replaced by larger, more efficient steel-hulled stern trawlers with forward pilothouses and stern net reels and ramps to fish more efficiently and safely.

Mystic acquired Roann in 1997. When the two-year preservation project is complete, the Seaport plans to use Roann as an educational ambassador for the museum.

“She can tell the whole story about the fishing industry,” says Dana Hewson, vice president for watercraft preservation and programs. “It’s not a simple story.”

For historians, Roann is an ideal choice to represent her generation, Seaport officials say, because much of her original systems and fishing gear are intact. And family members of the three owners are still in the area, and can provide a glimpse of the vessel’s history.

“There are people around who are associated with Roann,” says Hewson. “They are tremendous links to her history.”

After a few weeks on the blocks, Roann was to be moved inside the main shed where special viewing platforms will allow visitors to catch a glimpse of the project. The viewing platforms were installed when the shipyard was building the replica of the Amistad, a cargo ship carrying slaves who revolted and eventually won their freedom.

“We also want to do the restoration as faithfully as Mystic Seaport can do,” says Snediker. “People can come to the seaport to watch the progress of the restoration.”

Workers will carefully document the vessel as they pull timbers apart. The hull restoration will take 18 months, while work on the mechanical systems will take five to six months, according to Snediker. He says restoring the systems is one of the more challenging aspects of the project.

Once Roann was hauled and stabilized, spectators walked toward the lift dock where they were able to see the 34-foot Noank lobster boat Star relaunched after a yearlong restoration.

“Star is the vernacular local fishing boat,” says Snediker.

Built in Noank in 1950, Star was used more as a pleasure boat than a fishing vessel. The Seaport acquired the vessel in the late 1970s to be used as a workboat.

“Now she’s over 50 years old and historically important in her own right,” says Snediker.

Pat Wilbur, wife of one of the former owners and a Seaport employee, christened the newly refurbished yacht with a ceremonial breaking of the champagne bottle. After several whacks against her hull, and with a little help from Snediker, the bottle finally broke as the crowd cheered.

“My husband named this boat — and all his boats — Star,” said Wilbur, as she raised the champagne bottle. “And so shall I.”

The relaunching was the last time the lift dock will be used before its own restoration. The aging dock, which could not safely lift the 72-ton Roann, will be closed for repairs for the next 18 months, according to Snediker.

With the launching and haul-out complete, the crowd adjourned to the shipyard’s main shed where the Seaport provided a luncheon featuring its signature clam chowder.