Last breath of the Spirit's wind; tall ship to be sold at auction

The Spirit of South Carolina sails in Charleston Harbor.

The Spirit of South Carolina is for sale to the highest bidder. The tall ship the Lowcountry built goes to auction in four weeks.

It's a bitter end to a saga that has rocked for two years as listlessly as the ship herself at its Charleston Maritime Center mooring. 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 bank holding the note apparently put it up for auction.

Tall ships are replicas of historic sailing vessels. The Spirit is an eye-catching two-masted schooner, a 140-foot-long wooden ship modeled on a 19th century, Charleston-built schooner, a symbol of the tall ship heritage that is the very blood of this port town.

Sailor Tom Sweeney volunteered for the decade-long effort from the beginning, walked the ship on its hoists for its 2007 launching. He almost can't stand to look at the ship when he sails by now, he said.

"It's just very, very sad to see a great lady handled this way. It's a gorgeous boat. You watched this thing grow. It's like you saw something so beautiful, and watched it birthed, and it just left you fascinated. It was wonderful. It was like a child. It was very, very personal to a lot of us," he said.

The auction by Aaron Posnik and Co., Springfield, Mass., is scheduled to take place June 18, confirmed Martha Gaston, media relations manager for TD Bank, which holds the note on the ship.

Foundation organizers wanted to sell the ship to a party that would continue to use it as an educational vessel for young people. Two buyers were interested and an agreement was in place with one, but the sale was not completed before an April 30 deadline and TD Bank wanted to auction it, two people with knowledge of the negotiations confirmed.

Auctions are a chancy option for selling wooden boats, which most buyers want to survey before setting a bid, two people familiar with the sales said. They often are underbid.

Gaston said both the bank and the South Carolina Maritime Foundation agreed to the sale.

"We did a great job with it while we were able to do it with the economy (2008 recession). We just couldn't survive the storm," said Robert E. "Teddy" Turner IV, former foundation chairman. "TD Bank worked with us as best the bank could. Hopefully (the ship) will go to somebody that will use it for its original purpose, and that's teaching youth. It's a shame it went the way it did."

The Spirit was launched in 2007 to a harbor full of welcoming craft and a shoreline of cheering onlookers. The $4 million ship was a 7-year odyssey of fundraising and wrighting. Volunteers did much of the work. People paid $3 and $5 donations to watch. Businesses donated parts and gear. Forty live oaks were turned over from road projects to serve as the bones of its hull.

In three years, more than 9,500 students took part in educational trips aboard the ship.

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