Tallest Ship Brings High Hopes to Littlest State

Oliver H. Perry by Onne Van der Wal

While the title of this post sounds a bit like a children’s story, it’s really all big business.

On January 23, 2009, Ariana Green wrote an article in the NY Times titled In Rhode Island, Hoping a Tall Ship Can Help a Sagging Economy about a nonprofit organization, Tall Ships Rhode Island, purchasing a less than half finished tall ship from a foundering Canadian organization with the hopes boosting their tiny states economy, among other things.

Tall ships in America got their start in Newport, RI back in 1973 when Barclay Warburton III, along with a group of like minded maritime enthusiasts including Bart Dunbar, also member of the current group, established a new nonprofit to advance the concept of sail training and organize the US Bicentennial Tall Ships Celebrations in 1976. The American Sail Training Association was founded and over the years has grown to become a national and international nonprofit whose mission is to “encourage character building through sail training, promote sail training to the North American public and support education under sail.” (I was the executive director of the ASTA from 2001 through 2006.)

Warburton and the ASTA founders actions were very important to the local community because up until 1973 Newport was a Navy town. However, in that year, the fleet left, the base was downsized significantly and Newport was left pondering a potentially dismal economic future. Tall Ships and the Americas Cup would end up saving the day by transforming the city into one of the sailing capital’s of the world and a maritime heritage tourism destination.

Fast forward 36 years and can the current group pull another miracle out of their duffle bag? Green writes:

As Rhode Island struggles with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, city and state officials hope that turning the hull into a tall ship will create jobs, attract tourists and spur interest in the state’s maritime history.

“Today cities realize they benefit from having a flagship for their community,” said Timothy Walker, who teaches maritime history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. “It’s a way to be really visible and make an impression that can travel. It can literally fly the flag for a community.”

But not everyone is aboard with an optimistic assessment:

But Jeff Bolster, a professor of maritime history at the University of New Hampshire, said officials should not overestimate the economic contribution a ship project would make.

“A vessel of this scale is not going to be a huge help to the ailing economy,” Mr. Bolster said. “It has a modest operating budget, so it alone can’t solve the state’s fiscal problems in a major way.”

It will be all very interesting to watch. This is a very experienced group being led by Captain Richard Bailey who for years ran popular sail training programs aboard the HMS Rose until to she was sold to Fox to star in Master & Commander as the HMS Surprise. Today the Rose/Surprise is part of the San Diego Maritime Museum’s fleet of historic ships.

On the downside is that the Oliver Hazard Perry is a very large ship, second only to the USCGC Barque EAGLE in the United States. Ships this size are very costly to run and often difficult to fill. While nearly anyone who has sailed aboard a tall ship will vouch for it’s power in being a life changing experience, marketing the concept to wider public has always been challenging. The current projected cost of the project is $5 million and her scheduled launch is 2011, but I have yet to see a ship of this scale come in on budget and on time. Tall Ships Rhode Island has always been good at raising money and in this economy and for the foreseeable future, they have to really count on all of the contacts, connections and tricks they can pull out of their ditty bags.

This is a very exciting project for the City of Newport, the State of Rhode Island, the entire region and even the nation. While it seems pretty ambitious in scale, it’s no less so than what Barclay Warburton III pulled off in the early 1970’s. I bet he’s looking down and giving Tall Ships Rhode Island a big Huzzah for their efforts.

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Peter A. Mello

Husband, father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

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