Rain drops spill from the rigging. The Spirit of South Carolina rocks restlessly in the tidal chop, its foresails fastened to its rail in storage.
At the pilot schooner’s helm, the man who loves the ship is polishing brass with a shy smile on his face. Troy LeBoeuf, 46 years old, lives on the berthed tall ship as its caretaker. Quiet, thoughtful, he has the self-effacing manner of someone who is glad just to be here.
Most of the time nowadays, he is the only one aboard.
He dotes on the ship. After a day’s work at a home supply store, he swabs the decks, runs the bilge pumps, rubs the mahogany rail with Australian timber oil — any one of the endless chores to keep this beauty shipshape.
The officers of the Charleston Maritime Foundation have told him they can’t pay him. It doesn’t matter. He pays for supplies out of pocket, paid for the new American flag at the stern that replaced one in tatters.
He doesn’t have to, and he knows it. All he has to do is stand a last watch.
The Spirit is not likely to sail again under the foundation’s auspices, after introducing nearly 10,000 students — hands on — to the Tall Ship heritage that is the very blood of this port town.
“I could be living here every day, sitting here and doing nothing,” LeBoeuf acknowledges with a nod. “But I’m not going to sit here and let this boat get into disrepair. It’s worth it. Even if I have to spend a few dollars out of pocket, it’s worth it. Because it meant so much to so many kids.”
And to LeBoeuf. He first saw the ship under construction in Ansonborough Field in 2003 and wanted to be a part. He became a project volunteer, crewed a number of those educational harbor cruises. He had grown up aboard shrimp boats and other vessels. But never a sailing ship.
“This is the only one,” he says.
The Spirit is for sale, with few interested buyers.
The foundation is entangled in debts. Its office phone is disconnected, its website defunct.
“We’re trying to put something together to keep the boat here. We’d like to return it to its mission,” said Teddy Turner of the foundation. But “we don’t really have a lot of control over that.”
The foundation laid the keel for the Spirit in 2000 and it slipped into the harbor seven years later, the work largely of volunteers and a $4 million community effort, an eye-catching two-masted schooner that was championed as a proud symbol to the world.
Last January, LeBeouf came aboard at the Charleston Maritime Center, the ship tied down a little more than a hundred yards from where its keel was laid.
He makes coffee each morning belowdecks and carries it to the deck in the sunrise over Charleston Harbor. He loves the view, the peace.
In 2011, LeBeouf had just completed rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and was about to go into surgery for colon cancer when he took the wheel for the last time with the ship at sail. He chokes up to talk about what it meant to him. Nowadays he gives that wheel full turns to keep it turning.
“It’s like a dream,” he says. “You’re dreaming that you’re under sail.”
To his starboard, the tall ship Harvey Gamage is tied to the Spirit at mooring. Across the dock is the Geronimo. On the next dock down is the tall ship Gunilla. A little farther up the harbor, the tall ship Virginia is at anchor below the Ravenel Bridge. Each of them is an operating educational vessel with students aboard. They are in Charleston almost by happenstance, traveling from their winter to summer ports. But they are gathered around the Spirit like they don’t want to leave it behind.
When people call down from the dock to ask about the ship, LeBoeuf tells its tale, again. Maybe the next person will be the right one to hear it.
“It bothers me that with all the money in this community, people can’t find enough to keep her here,” he says. “It was a lot of people’s dream to get her built. It’s my job to keep her.”
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.