Lowcountry’s tall ship to return to the waters

Spirit of South Carolina volunteer crew watch as the Coast Guardsman inspect the sailing vessel Friday morning. Once the ship and crew pass inspection, it will once again become a floating classroom.

The Spirit is rigged to sail, again.

The never-say-die cadre of volunteers who stayed with the Lowcountry’s own tall ship through its turmoil have the Spirit of South Carolina scheduled to raise the sails in May, working as a combined student educational and adult team-building craft.

They are forging a partnership with the Lowcountry Maritime Society, a nonprofit working to connect students and the community with its maritime beauty, cultural heritage and environment.

“We’re going to do what we intended to do from the beginning. It’s going to be a school ship,” said volunteer leader Reg Brown.

It’s like a fresh breeze in the canvas for the 15-year-old labor of love that seemed dead in the water last year, and a welcome reprieve for the hand-hewn craft championed as a symbol of the tall ship heritage that is the very blood of this port town.

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.

The keel of the $4 million ship was laid in 2001 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.

The Spirit, designed as an offshore sailing vessel carrying about two dozen passengers at a time, held programs for more than 9,500 students in three years. But loans taken out to speed its construction left the effort leaking money by the time the hull settled in the water. The educational programs never got farther than class day trips in the vicinity of Charleston Harbor.

For seven years, the ship languished in financial distress at the Charleston Maritime Center. 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.

When it was finally auctioned last spring, the ship looked to buyers from out of the region. But local businessmen Tommy Baker and Michael Bennett outbid other interests to keep it here. The new owners had no firm plans for the ship when Brown and other longtime volunteers approached them with theirs, Brown said.

For now, the focus will be on education and for-hire team-building trips. But event and recreation trips could be added as the group works out a new business model, Brown said.

On Friday, the Coast Guard performed a preliminary inspection. A follow-up inspection must still be passed, as well as “underway drills” with the working crew, said Lt. Cameron Cooper, of the Coast Guard’s Sector Charleston. But “the vessel itself is on track to get a Certificate of Inspection” required to carry fee-paying passengers, he said.

The Maritime Society is now working partly in local schools, a land-based program that teaches students science, engineering and skills, such as navigation, by building wooden boats, said Prentice “Tripp” Brower, executive director.

“What we see (partnering with the volunteer group) is expanding our program to the waters,” he said. “We see the Spirit of South Carolina as a symbol for the city, region and the state.”

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