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Booming sail training brings new age of sail

Jan 1, 2003

Twenty years ago, when only a handful of sailing ships were still plying the waters of the U.S. coasts as floating museums, no one could have anticipated that the sail training industry would someday have a startling renaissance. Only a few dozen ships, some replicas and some original, were operated by a few true believers, people who sported sheathed knives, peppered their speech with words like "ahoy" and "afoul" and practiced semaphore with each other.

Today, the sail training industry is booming. New ships, each costing several million dollars to complete, are being built in cities from coast to coast and for service on the Great Lakes. Peter Mello is executive director of the American Sail Training Association (ASTA) in Newport, R.I., which he said has 170 member organizations that operate some 150 U.S.-flag vessels and many more (220 total member vessels) that serve Americans around the world.

Mello estimates, conservatively, that combined operating budgets for U.S. sail training vessels are $50 million each year. But as each vessel is added and each new crew hired, this number shoots up, especially when an entirely new program is founded. "One recent exciting piece of news is that ASTA received a Federal Appropriation in FY2006 to foster after-school and out-of-school sail training programs across America," Mello said.

In Charleston, S.C., perhaps as a result of recent attention on the city from the sailing community (the former Around Alone was based there twice), the hull of Pride of South Carolina is taking shape on the waterfront. The vessel is enormous with a sparred length of 140 feet, displacing nearly 150 tons and accommodating 29 overnight passengers. When completed next year, it will have cost more than $4 million, according to Meaghan Van Liew who, along with her husband Brad, winner of Class 2 in the last Around Alone Race, are directors of the South Carolina Maritime Heritage Foundation. Running the ship will require $1 million each year, Van Liew said.

One may wonder: How to raise funds for such an ambitious project when the state previously lacked such a vessel or program? Van Liew said the solution lies in "Having board members who grew up with sailing experience. At fundraising dinners, our board members, who are prominent people in the community, can testify to the value of these programs from their experiences and say, 'This has changed my life.' This is incredibly helpful." Pride of South Carolina, a replica of a vessel that served the Carolina coast in the 19th century, will serve the students of South Carolina of all backgrounds, funded by private donations, state and federal grants, and some tuition funds, Van Liew said.

In Virginia, another ambitious project was realized by the delivery of the replica pilot schooner, Virginia, two years ago. The wooden vessel is 114 feet on deck, has a displacement of more than 150 tons and cost more than $4 million to complete, according to Bob Glover III, executive director of Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation in Norfolk. Building the vessel took two essential ingredients: "Community, community, community and money, money, money," he said. And now the next hurdle, populating the vessel and paying for it, brings its own set of challenges. "Now that the ship is built, we have to go out and prove we can do this mission we have been pushing for the last six years to the community," Glover said. The vessel is running and has received tremendous community support. The anticipated visit of the Volvo Ocean Race in May will likely buoy support and provide well-needed attention.

More than 35 new vessels have been built in the United States in the past 10 years, according to Mello. Other ambitious projects include a new steel schooner, Argo, built in Thailand to join the schooner Ocean Star of Sea-Mester of Sarasota, Fla., which will sail around the world with paying students; a new sloop for the Great Lakes called Friends Good Will, which now serves the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Mich.; and two new square topsail schooners, Irving and Exy Johnson for the Los Angeles Maritime Institute. The barque Picton Castle is now engaged in its fourth circumnavigation with paying passengers.

Each project requires its own careful analysis of the local economy and its own signature blend of program, whether serving at-risk youth, teaching vocational or teambuilding skills, or offering a scientific curriculum. But as each new vessel is added to this burgeoning U.S. fleet, it becomes easier to sell future projects to local donors. Van Liew said she continues to gain invaluable support from others in the industry who have plied the same fundraising waters.

Mello summed up the importance of the ships' usage: "ASTA member vessels range from those that conduct three-hour elementary school field trips to college-accredited semesters at sea. ASTA member vessels offer unique experiences to people of all ages, from a harbor sunset sail to circumnavigation of the globe; there is a wide diversity of opportunities to go to sea under sail. Sail training vessels create incredibly powerful and effective platforms to educate, foster teamwork, build character and develop leaders."