Texas Tall Ship Raising Funds for Hull Repairs
Consider it an expensive reminder to check your sacrificial zincs after a storm. When Hurricane Ike made landfall near Galveston Island on Sept. 13, 2008, it pummeled the historic port. And riding proudly in her berth at the Texas Seaport Museum was the 1877 Barque Elissa, the Official Tall Ship of Texas, secured by heavy cables tied to pilings driven 125 feet into the muddy harbor bottom.
When museum employees returned to the island, they found heavy damage to the docks and exhibit space, but the National Landmark vessel that serves as the museum’s centerpiece appeared relatively unscathed. They had lost a square sail the volunteer crew had been unable to remove during storm preparations. The lid on the wheel box was cracked. And the brightwork had minor damage from wind driven sand and debris. She reopened to visitors five weeks later.
But below the waterline was a different story, one that would not unfold until the vessel’s next bottom job. The trip up the Houston Ship Channel to a dry dock happens twice every five years, but what they found in January 2011 was anything but routine.
“The first sign of a problem was the disappearance of an unprecedented number of the 55 sacrificial zinc anodes scattered across the underwater surface of the hull,” said Jamie White, museum director since October 2010. A light blasting with a sand and water slurry to remove marine growth revealed the full extent of the corrosion. “I saw the zincs were wasted away,” said White, who immediately flew in his predecessor, Kurt Voss to help assess the situation.
Voss, who had served as the museum director since Elissa’s initial restoration work, verified that they were looking at something not seen before. “Although a certain number of anodes are replaced at every dry-docking, their rates of deterioration were never before a surprise,” said White.
White and Voss called inspectors from U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of shipping to provide their input. Damage included numerous wasted rivets and many small pits, some of which penetrated entirely through the hull – all the result of severe electrolytic corrosion that had taken place since the previous drydocking in January 2008.
The U.S. Coast Guard pronounced the ship “not seaworthy” and her annual day sail series was cancelled for 2011, though she remains open for visitors at the museum. Most tourists who amble across her fir decks, explore her hold and admire the glossy woodwork of the officers’ quarters are unaware of the threat beneath their feet.
Speculation is that stray current from downed or broken power lines after Ike greatly accelerated the normal rate of corrosion. “Whatever caused the electrolytic corrosion has been corrected, so it’s difficult to assess blame,” White said, adding that there is a chance that GHF will collect something from a pending insurance claim. There is also the possibility that FEMA will determine that the damage is “event related,” opening access to some federal disaster relief funds.
The Galveston Historical Foundation, which owns and operates the ship and museum, has embarked upon a fundraising effort to pay for what is expected to be the most extensive repair job since GHF first rescued the vessel from impending destruction in 1974. Contingent upon funding, the hull repairs costing an estimated $2.1 million are expected to take place this summer. GHF is also hoping to raise an additional $1 million to pay for replacement of the wood deck.
“When the ship was built, it had a working life expectancy of a couple dozen years, so it’s not surprising that the deck needs work,” said White. “It’s been three decades since the restoration. I tell people this is her 30-year refit.”
In addition to drawing upon White’s experience as a master rigger (including a stint working on the 1886 Tall Ship Balclutha at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park), GHF has assembled an international panel of maritime experts to provide advice during the project.
White anticipates that some of the original iron hull will need to be replaced with modern steel, as was done during the restoration work in the 1970s. Witnesses to that effort described the hull as looking more like a basket than a showboat as large chunks of corroded metal – some 25 percent of the hull – were cut away. Shipyard workers also used steel to rebuild Elissa’s original clipper bow, which had been cut away during the later decades of her working career (see sidebar). Over the years since she became a museum piece, another ten to fifteen percent of the original plates have been replaced, mostly due to a collision in 1984 when a floating drydock broke loose in a storm and drifted down onto Elissa’s stern.
“GHF’s goal is to retain as much of the original hull as possible and use traditional construction methods on any plates that are too far gone to save,” White said. “That will be a time-consuming and expensive process, but the Elissa deserves nothing less. GHF has been unanimous in keeping Elissa sailing. They don’t want a museum ship. They want a sailing ship.”
If all goes as planned, White hopes to have the ship returned to seaworthy condition and the volunteer crew trained in time to sail in the annual Harvest Moon Regatta from Galveston to Port Aransas, Oct. 25-27, followed by her traditional day sail series in March 2013.
As of late January, GHF had surpassed ten percent of its fundraising goal. To donate $10 toward the drydock campaign, text “Elissa” to 50555 on your cellphone or visit galvestonhistory.org to learn about other ways to help.
Hers is an inspirational story of those maritime preservationists who found the stripped down iron hull in a Greek scrap yard and, seeing what remained of her graceful lines, envisioned the majestic sailing vessel she had once been.
Built by the firm of Alexander Hall & Company in Aberdeen, Scotland, for Liverpool merchant Henry Fowler Watt and named for his young niece, Elissa was designed to work smaller ports that were inaccessible to the heavier steam ships already taking over the cargo trade at that time.
Hers is the story of those true believers in Galveston who spent $40,000 to buy the ship that had twice visited their port during her 90-year working history. On Dec. 26, 1883, she landed one passenger and a cargo of bananas from Central America. She left with a load of cotton. That was all the connection Galveston historians needed. The Galveston Historic Foundation had spent years preserving its historic Victorian structures. Now it had a Victorian-era ship to represent the city’s maritime past.
But residents who bought into the dream were somewhat disillusioned when the stripped down hull was towed into port in 1979.
Over the years, her sailing rig had been reduced to little more than blocks and tackle on stumps used to load and unload cargo. Ownership passed to a Norwegian firm in 1897 and she sailed with her original barque rig for 14 years under the name Fjeld. In 1912, new owners reduced her rig so she could be operated by smaller crews. Swedish owners renamed her Gustav in 1918 and further reduced her rig. Finnish owners fitted her with her first auxiliary engine in 1918 and eliminated the last of her square sails. She last carried cargo in 1968 as a Greek smugglers’ ship named Achaeos. Her proud bow had been snubbed and a deckhouse was added aft, perhaps to better blend in with other shipping traffic. Only the original brass owner’s plate on the stump of the mizzen mast provided a hint of her bygone sailing days.
But her determined new Texas owners subsequently spent three years, countless man hours and millions of dollars rebuilding her into what has been acclaimed as one of the finest maritime restoration efforts ever — and a celebration of Galveston’s maritime heritage. In September 1982, Elissa once again sailed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Hers is the story of the hundreds of volunteers who have since maintained the ship and trained for an annual series of day sails to keep her in full working order – one of only three historic iron-hulled tall ships still sailing the ocean waters. Some volunteers travel from as far as Dallas and Austin for the rare opportunity to climb in her tar-coated rigging and haul lines upon her worn decks. These volunteers provide in excess of 30,000 hours of work annually aboard Elissa to maintain not just the historic ship, but to learn and preserve the skills and traditions of the age of sail.
It is thanks to their dedication that this small piece of our past will remain afloat for many more years – and, perhaps, many more generations.
The Barque Elissa by the Numbers
- Built 1877
- 3 masts
- 19 sails (approximately 12,000 square feet)
- 174 lines (approximately 4 ½ miles) running rigging
- 2 ½ miles of steel wire rope standing rigging
- 205 feet LOA
- 141 feet LWL
- 152 feet LOD
- 99’9” height of main mast
- 620-ton displacement