The history of Washington, North Carolina is interwoven with that of the tall-masted schooners that were once a commonplace sight on the city’s waterfront, coming and going on the waters of the Pamlico River with all manner of raw materials and finished goods for commerce with other parts of the state, up and down the east coast, and abroad. Wharfs and warehouses lining the river’s edge were the center of business activity, and the fortunes of the early fathers of the town were closely tied with the tall ships, winds and currents.
Today, once again, there is the unmistakable profile of a tall ship, traditional schooner and her two towering masts on the waterfront, immediately catching the eye as one crosses the U.S. Hwy 17 bridge into Washington. The tall ship Jeanie B is a 72-foot schooner built in the spirit of those early cargo vessels and used primarily for educational cruises.
Captain Lee Sutton said he has always had an interest in both sailing and education, and the Jeanie B is the culmination of more than a decade of sharing sailing with young and old alike. In the summer, the vessel spends two months cruising with campers from Camp Sea Gull and Camp Seafarer, located on the Neuse River in Arapahoe, NC. She also takes Boy Scouts out for weekend trips throughout the spring and fall.
In March, Capt. Sutton reached an agreement with the city council to make Washington the Jeanie B’s home base. Her arrival was marked with festivities including educational talks and free tours and cruises aboard the ship.
Capt. Sutton, who also teaches in the Biology Department at East Carolina University, said the vessel provides a unique learning opportunity. “It’s a teaching vessel,” he said. “We hope to educate outside of a traditional classroom. When I teach in a real classroom, on campus, there’s a certain syllabus, and you have to evaluate the students and keep records. When you don’t have to evaluate them, at that age, the learning becomes much more free.”
“The second thing in terms of the mission of the boat is experience. We’re taking these 13- and 14-year-olds away from their phones, their gadgets, their X-Boxes, and iPods. Those things are fun – but when we’re out there for two weeks with the Sea Gull and Seafarer campers or the Boy Scouts, it’s just a real nice thing to put that stuff away and focus on who’s on the boat, and focus on the team. What we find is that the kids interact more together, and at the end they’ve really learned a lot about themselves and about the freedom that they’ve seen out on the water.”
When the Jeanie B is not out cruising the Inner Banks of North Carolina, she’ll rest in Washington, and will be available for tours and cruises.
Bill Sykes, a member of the Maritime Team of the Washington Harbor District Alliance (WHDA), said the relationship between the city and the vessel will be mutually beneficial.
“The arrival of the Jeanie B will draw attention to the rich maritime history of Little Washington,” he said. “It is exciting to know that a two-masted schooner similar to the Fowle family schooners shown in waterfront pictures from the late 1800s and early 1900s will be docked at the same waterfront. The Jeanie B will draw new people to the Washington harbor so that they can learn what a great place this is and how great the people are, which should help our downtown revitalization efforts.”
Several local groups were quick to lend their support, including the WHDA, the Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce, the Tourism Development Authority, the Beaufort County Arts Council, the Washington Historic Foundation, and the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. City Council member William Pitt described to the other councilmen the positive experience he had touring the vessel when the Jeanie B visited Washington briefly last summer.
“Beth Byrd, the WHDA’s executive director, and Capt. Sutton worked closely and quickly with the Maritime Team to gather information, review the proposal, and address potential concerns so that the proposal could be presented to the City Council,” said Sykes. “The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board held a special meeting to unanimously support the effort. And best of all, the City Council quickly voted in favor of the proposal when it was first presented so that the Jeanie B could move to her new homeport by March 21, the Vernal Spring Equinox!”
Capt. Sutton feels that Washington’s history and location make it a perfect fit for the schooner.
“In talking with the Boy Scouts last year, I began to look at the charts, and looking at the Pamlico Sound and the Pamlico River, sailing from Washington to Ocracoke, it’s just such great, safe, fun sailing,” he said. “You can make it an overnight, or if you have good wind, you can do it in 12 hours, but it’s just such a great angle to get to Ocracoke on a typical southwest or northeast breeze. I think it’s a great city, based on the water. Before the trains came, the schooners were part of the town, so I love the romance of that. I love that I’m close to the Boy Scouts and the camps that I sail with, and since I live in Greenville, it’s close.”
“The waterfront is a place that already sees many people coming to enjoy the beauty of the natural world that is the Pamlico River. Add a tall-masted schooner to that waterfront and have it live and call Washington home, and you create a partnership that is not only a win-win for the ship and the city, but you also create experiences and dreams for many people coming to see, sail and simply come to the City of Washington.”
Jules Norwood is a UNC alum and works with his father David at Carolina Wind Yachting Center. Jules is an avid sailor and has worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and newsroom manager.