The auctioneer called, "Sold!" The sailors aboard the Spirit of South Carolina let out a jubilant whoop that could have echoed down the waterfront a century ago: "Keep it in Charleston!"
Local businessmen Tommy Baker and Michael Bennett did it - bidding $440,000 Wednesday at a public auction to take ownership of the historic replica pilot schooner. As many as two dozen interests - one from overseas but predominantly the Northeast - took part in the auction, bidding by telephone. Baker and Bennett bid from the deck of the ship.
Few in the boating community thought the bidding would go much higher for a maintenance-heavy ship that cost $4 million to build.
It was an unexpectedly welcome turn in a seven-year odyssey that seemed more and more to be headed for the rocks. The businessmen plan to keep the boat in the city where it was wrighted, Baker said, at least for the time being at the Charleston Maritime Center mooring where it rolls in the harbor waves.
Baker is the owner of Baker Motor Co., a luxury car dealer. Bennett, of Bennett Hofford Construction Co., is a local real estate investor. The bid was the culmination of months of jockeying to save the ship by a group of sailing aficionado volunteers who have been with the effort from its beginnings more than a decade ago. A number were aboard for the auction.
"You know how Charleston is - you never know how connected you are to people until you show up for an event and they're there," said volunteer Dan Machowski.
Beyond keeping the Spirit in Charleston, Baker and Bennett would not say what plans they have for it, only that they were still working them out. Troy LeBoeuf, who has lived aboard as its caretaker, said the new owners asked him to stay on for at least the transition. LeBoeuf expected the ship to be used for a mix of educational and tourism programs, he said. He hoped to remain with it if it continues to be used for educational purposes.
"They (the new owners) want me to stay. No matter what, they need someone who knows the boat. I'll do what I can to help," he said.
Tall ships are replicas of historic sailing vessels. The Spirit is an eye-catching, two-masted schooner. The 140-foot-long wooden ship was modeled on a 19th century, Charleston-built schooner. It has been hailed and championed as a symbol of the tall ship heritage that is the very blood of this port town.
The keel of the $4 million ship was laid in 2000 in a building effort buoyed by public donations, any number of volunteers, and then bank loans. The ship was launched in 2007 to a cheering throng and a harbor full of boats honking horns. In three years, more than 9,500 students took part in educational trips aboard.
The Spirit was designed as an offshore sailing vessel carrying groups of about two dozen students at a time for "semesters at sea." But the loans left the effort leaking money by the time the ship settled in the water and the educational programs never got farther than class day trips in the vicinity of Charleston Harbor. The defunct foundation that oversaw the ship's construction and operation was forced to sell it to pay mounting debts including more than $2 million in loans. The turnabout left the Charleston boating community and tall ship champions across the world chagrined: For historic trading port Charleston to lose its tall ship would have been a shot to the heart.
Apparently unhappy with at least one purchase offer, the bank holding the note put it up for auction. The "free and clear" auction removed ownership of the boat from outstanding bills.
"TD Bank and the South Carolina Maritime Foundation worked together to establish a mutual resolution to sell the Spirit of South Carolina. Today's auction culminates this collaborative effort," Dixon Woodward, bank president for Coastal Carolinas, said in an email.
When the ship slipped its hoists in 2007, it rocked in the swells as if it couldn't wait to sail. Before the auction Wednesday, it seemed to sway dispiritedly at mooring. The state flag wagging from a halyard below a Spirit of South Carolina banner seemed to be almost at half mast. The volunteers aboard talked with an anxiety tinged with anticipation. It would be a happy day or a sad day, said Robert E. "Teddy" Turner IV, chairman of the defunct foundation.
Then they let out that whoop.
"It's just nice," Machowski said. "Hopefully now it will stay where it is, doing what we built it to do. I feel kind of numb right now. I don't know how to think about it."
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Auctioneer Paul Scheerspeaks Wednesday on the phone with a bidder and with Tommy Baker, eventual buyer along with Michael Bennett, during an auction for the Spirit of South Carolina at the Charleston Maritime Center.×
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