Keeping the Spirit

Ted Bullock (from left), Dan Machowski and Reg Brown reminisce at the Maritime Center about the first time they discussed building a tall ship while sitting in the living quarters below deck on the Spirit of South Carolina.

The men clambering across the gangway in the ghost-light dusk will tell you this isn’t their ship. In some ways that couldn’t be further from the truth. You can see it in the easy swing of the hands along the rope rail, the way they almost bounce as they settle on the teak deck.

Dozens of people like these three men are the heart of the Spirit of South Carolina, the volunteers and sometimes employees who looked up from setting the ribs of the tall ship’s hull more than a decade ago, eyed the spectators in the wooden stands and told each other, “You either get splinters in your hand working on the boat or you get splinters in your butt watching.”

They are the ones who held fast when the effort to operate the Lowcountry’s own replica pilot schooner went up on the rocks in debt and the S.C. Maritime Foundation that owned it collapsed. They kept trying new tacks and hounded people to keep it in Charleston, where it was built.

After TD Bank foreclosed on it, the volunteers stood tense as a knot on that teak deck while the auctioneer chanted out bids. Their jubilant roar zinged straight up the spine when local businessmen Tommy Baker and Michael Bennett bested out-of-town interests.

They kept the Spirit alive. There’s no need to even ask why. Mount Pleasant boat builder Ted Bullock hesitates, nods. His eyes run over the hull frames he helped set. “I’m part of this ship,” he said. “There’s blood, sweat and tears that are mine in the bilge.”

Like all good sea tales, the saga of the Spirit begins at “Beer: 30,” the Friday afternoon gatherings in shipwright Mark Bayne’s boatyard at the mouth of Shem Creek, with a view across the harbor to the peninsula skyline. Kick-back time after a week of hard work; nearly every one of the regulars had a hand in building boats.

It was the 1990s. Sailing in the Lowcountry was in the midst of a resurgence. The BOC Challenge — that epic, around-the-world, solo sail race — was now launching from Charleston and the finest in the world were here. The Maritime Festival had opened.

At Bayne’s boatyard, tops got popped, people got ribbed, dream trip tales were spun. By the time Dan Machowski, an offshore fisheries biologist and sailor, fell in with the group, the talk always seemed to come back to the same thing: Why don’t we build a tall ship?

It was never a question of can we build it, Machowski recalls. That was a given. The question was, where to get the wood. Live oak was critical to the strength of the hull, and live oak was a protected tree, wood that was tough to come by.

One Friday, Machowski turned back up after a few weeks working offshore and two scavenged live oak trunks sat in the boatyard, courtesy of regular Charlie Sneed. The next question was, where do we get more?

The other question that never really came up was, can we afford this? The boat would get built if it came down to a few guys working weekends. But keeping her sailing would be another question. Tall ships are replicas of historic vessels, requiring period piece equipment and tons of elbow grease.

The rule of thumb is $1 million per year, that’s what you spend just to maintain the craft. That’s where most efforts fall apart and that’s why too many tall ships today float mostly at moorings, disused and weathered, little more than tourist eye candy. Everybody at Bayne’s boatyard knew that; nobody doubted they could pull it off anyhow.

The ceremonial keel was laid in 2001 and people came out of the woodwork to help. Bullock, himself a boatwright doing restoration work downtown on a church bell tower, saw the huge keel in the Ansonborough field and gravitated to it. He would grab sushi and an orange juice for lunch, go sit by the keel and run his eyes over it while he ate.

“I thought, wow,” he said. “That’s going to be a ship. Where is it going?” When the restoration job was done, he walked up to Bayne and told him, “Give me a job. I want to build the Spirit of South Carolina.”

Reg Brown, a retired manufacturer’s representative and a lifelong sailor, saw the newspaper ad and thought volunteering would be neat. He helped as two huge slabs of Angelique wood were fitted together for the keel, “then I came back and came back.”

There were more than 200 others, some paid, most not. They couldn’t have been more different. Bullock is quiet, Brown voluble. Machowski is a story-teller. They shared the passion for what Bullock called a once-in-a-lifetime endeavor for a sailor.

Nearly all the live oak ribs were set when the effort ran out of money the first time. The foundation brought in new management and fundraising, and it recovered.

There’s another rule of thumb to building tall ships, Brown will tell you only half-kidding. You can raise the money first and it will take 10 years. Or you can raise the money as you go, and it will take 10 years. Somewhere along the line, the decision was made to take out a sizable loan, to speed up that 10-year timeline.

The Spirit was launched in 2007 to a cheering throng and a harbor full of boats honking horns. It was a beauty, a 140-foot-long two-masted pilot schooner on the design of a 19th century Charleston-built vessel that was considered the fastest of its time.

During construction, the volunteers had learned the 19th century craft had been designed on the lines of the America, the first ship to win racing’s prestigious America’s Cup in 1851. They were literally building a replica of a masterpiece.

“We knew then it was fast,” Brown said. They also knew the effort had taken a different turn and would start out mostly running day trips in Charleston Harbor. That didn’t set well with them. “She’s a thoroughbred made to go offshore,” Machowski said. “The concept from the beginning was she was going to sea.”

They didn’t know that by the time the keel touched water, the effort to do that was leaking dollars. It was making enough money to operate but not enough to retire the debt. That blindsided them.

But they didn’t give up, even after the foundation collapse. They kept up their ship in hundreds of ways. To this day, Machowski keeps a list of volunteers still involved — about 40 who will turn out for day-to-day work and more than 100 who will turn out on occasion.

One of the volunteers, Troy LeBoeuf, moved aboard, and when he wasn’t at his day job, he spent the time swabbing the decks, running the bilge pumps, rubbing the mahogany rail with Australian timber oil — any one of the endless chores to keep the beauty shipshape.

Among other efforts, they raised pledges for something like three-quarters of a million dollars and made an unsuccessful pitch to the bank to buy it. Heartsick when the decision was made to auction, they made frantic calls to draw local bidders.

When the auction gavel dropped to open bidding, the Spirit of South Carolina was more than $2 million in debt.

Eight Charleston interests had signed on the bidder list. Only two showed up, Baker and Bennett. They came separately, talked to a few of the volunteers about other bidders, then huddled together at the rail.

When the auction opened, Baker did the bidding with an occasional querying look to Bennett. They acquired a masterpiece — and a white elephant — for $440,000, with no firm idea what they wanted to do with it except keep it in town.

The volunteers stepped forward again. Since they talked recently, they are applying for nonprofit status on behalf of the owners. The program’s centerpiece will be to go offshore, to renew the educational trips. They plan to host events and team-building retreats aimed at corporations and other organizations.

With the Spirit now out of debt, they have no doubt they can do it. In fact, they already have bookings. They have been challenged by Tall Ships America leadership to bring back the Maritime Festival featuring the ships. They say they will, by 2017.

“We know for a fact that this program can succeed. Not trying would be a bigger failure,” Machowski said. “She’s not called the Spirit of South Carolina for nothing.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.