There never was any question that the Spirit of South Carolina belonged in South Carolina, its tall masts punctuating the waterfront skyline and its sleek hull slipping through the waves in Charleston Harbor.
The question was how to keep the schooner here. Here is where master shipwright Mark Bayne directed skilled shipwrights and volunteers in building the 140-foot replica of a 19th century pilot schooner to celebrate South Carolina's maritime heritage.
Here is where the Spirit was certified by the U.S. Coast Guard as a sailing school vessel, and where hundreds of students got their first taste of sailing - and learned math, marine biology, history and meteorology at the same time.
Unfortunately, here is also where the non-profit South Carolina Maritime Foundation met a crippling financial crisis.
Wednesday, local businessmen Tommy Baker and Michael Bennett made the top bid to purchase the Spirit of South Carolina for $440,000. Mr. Bennett said that neither he nor Mr. Baker was in the market for a tall ship, but neither wanted it to leave Charleston. So with one day left before the public auction, they agreed to purchase it together and figure out what to do with it later.
The news delighted Spirit's supporters who were afraid the schooner would be taken away. It is, after all, an expensive proposition - not just buying it, but maintaining and operating it.
The owners tell us that they have no plans yet. It would be ideal, both agree, if the ship could be used in some way for its original purpose - to provide an educational experience for children. But they're not sure how, when or even if they can make that happen.
Certainly the Spirit has been an effective way to engage and educate young students, and if Mr. Baker and Mr. Bennett were to find a way to continuing using the schooner that way - even if only as a secondary function - it would be a noteworthy act of public spirit and generosity.
But while the new owners work out those decisions, South Carolinians can enjoy knowing that the Spirit of South Carolina won't be shipping out. They can still get a glimpse of the kind of vessel that Charlestonians saw on the harbor 135 years ago - a schooner made from the materials used in those days - live oak, longleaf pine, sapele, purpleheart and Douglas fir.
They can marvel that it was constructed from beginning to end on site near the Charleston Maritime Center - even the two masts and rigging - over more than five years, being completed in 2006.
Several states are home to historic ships and replicas. Maryland has The Pride of Baltimore II; the Californian is a replica of a 19th century revenue service cutter; and Connecticut has a replica of the slave ship La Amistad. Others are in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Texas and the state of Washington.
All have struggled financially.
Unfortunately for the Spirit of South Carolina, financial difficulties came during a difficult economy. Efforts to find a public or non-profit owner didn't pan out.
Fortunately, Mr. Baker and Mr. Bennett stepped into the breach. They appear to have the resources to maintain and operate the Spirit. They have the will to preserve this important piece of maritime heritage and to restore its public service function. And they have the gratitude of people who know that it belongs right here.
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