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Solo sailor takes on school-ship project

Brad Van Liew is more accustomed to raising money to build carbon fiber racing steeds than sturdy wooden workhorses.

Brad Van Liew is more accustomed to raising money to build carbon fiber racing steeds than sturdy wooden workhorses.

Yet the workhorse, Spirit of South Carolina, a 91-foot adaptation of a 19th-century Charleston-built pilot schooner, the Frances Elizabeth, is on top of the round-the-world racer’s to-do list these days.

“I’m not as used to chain saws as I am to titanium and carbon,” says Van Liew, co-director with his wife, Meaghan, of the South Carolina Maritime Heritage Foundation. The foundation’s chief goal right now is to finish building Spirit of South Carolina and develop a school-ship program for it.

Spirit’s launch is scheduled for early 2007. On July 18 the Van Liews announced Anthony L. Arrow, a 20-year school-ship veteran, as Spirit of South Carolina’s captain. He will lead the final phase of construction and work on Spirit’s education-at-sea program, which is its reason for being.

An experienced educator and crewmember who worked his way up from deckhand to captain on the tall ships Niagara, Californian, Spirit of Massachusetts, Harvey Gamage, Westward, Highlander Sea, Mystic Whaler and Rose, Arrow will be developing youth sail- training and education programs ranging from daysails to multiweek voyages.

Co-director Van Liew has raced in two Around Alones — now called the Velux 5 Oceans Race — and won the 2002-’03 single-handed race in the 50-foot class. The Californian retired from around-the-world racing after his big win, moved his family to Charleston, S.C. — home for several runnings of the Around Alone — and put out a shingle for Van Liew Ventures, the couple’s marketing and consulting firm. Van Liew sold his Open 50, Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America, to Joe Harris, a Boston-area real estate broker, and helped him organize and train for the 2004 TransAt, a race in which Harris went on to finish second in Class 2.

As co-directors of the foundation, the Van Liews are helping the city of Charleston — already known for its restored historic district — showcase its long-neglected maritime heritage while providing youngsters with an alternative classroom where they can learn while they sail.

The foundation is building the tall ship, and it is the organizer of the Charleston-to-Bermuda Race and the yearly South Carolina Maritime Heritage Festival in June. The Van Liews came in and raised $1.5 million to resume Spirit’s construction in March 2005 after a 1-1/2-year hiatus. Now they want to raise the last $1 million of the ship’s $4 million cost before 2007. More money will be needed after that to fund endowments to maintain it and develop educational programs.

“It will be a school boat,” Van Liew says. “We’ll have a number of partners that will use it.” Youth will learn leadership and teamwork skills, as well as academic subjects like math, science and history while they sail. Others will crew the ship in Outward Bound-types of programs.

“It’s a real cool project,” Van Liew says.

Spirit — its ribs of hewn live oak and planks of hard longleaf yellow pine — has come together under a big tent in a field downtown where the foundation set up a temporary boatyard so passersby could see the eight shipwrights working on the project. Those shipwrights carefully wedged the last of the 200 hull planks — the so-called whiskey plank — into place July 21, sealing Spirit’s hull. The longleaf yellow pine was the wood of choice for planking when Charleston’s Samuel J. Pregnall & Bros. Shipyard built the 57-foot Frances Elizabeth in 1879.

“Charleston has a lot of tourists and a lot of history, but we’ve always focused on Fort Sumter and the Civil War,” says Mark Bayne, a co-owner and founder of Sea Island Boat Works, the builder. Important as that history is, Charleston also boasts a long maritime heritage.

“Charleston always has been a major port, and it still is,” says Bayne. “It’s the fourth-largest container port on the East Coast.”

Bayne, who also builds sportfishing, catamaran and sailing yachts in cold-molded wood at his shop in the Halsey Cannon Shipyard, sees the project as an opportunity to apprentice some young, aspiring workers, teach them wood-on-frame planking and keep that tradition alive. They have been working with 2-1/2- to 3-inch-thick planks up to 36 feet long.

Spirit of South Carolina’s designers — Peter Boudreau and Andrew Davis, of TriCoastal Marine — also were involved in the design of the Schooner Virginia, Pride of Baltimore II and Amistad, among others.

Bayne says they scaled the 57-foot Frances Elizabeth up to a 91-footer (on deck, 140 feet overall) so it could operate as a school ship. She will carry 29 passengers and have a top speed of about 12-1/2 knots under sail. She also will carry twin 150- to 220-hp Cummins diesel engines.

Van Liew says the tall ship will be another attraction to the city’s waterfront, which boasts an aquarium, IMAX theater, maritime center and a new quarter-mile-long megayacht dock.

The Van Liews say they are seeking individual donors, foundation grants and corporate sponsorship. They invite volunteers to help out at the shipyard or with special events like the maritime festival, or make a donation to the construction fund.

Fifty dollars buys a foot of planking and a planking certificate.

“A great gift for dad or grandpa,” Meaghan Van Liew says.