The Spirit of South Carolina, a replica tall ship built in Charleston, will stay afloat — and perhaps more active than ever — thanks in large measure to a new affiliation with the College of Charleston, according to its executive director, Fletcher Meyers.
Starting this month, the vessel also will open its gangplanks to individual patrons interested in hands-on educational harbor cruises.
Managing a 140-foot, two-mast schooner is a tall order, but Meyers and his board of directors think they’ve settled on a good formula: launch 90-day “study-abroad” excursions with 16 College of Charleston students on board each semester, plus shorter educational sails in local waters, and generate the necessary revenue to support an annual budget that can reach around $600,000.
“The future of the ship as a vessel is with the College of Charleston,” Meyers said.
The Spirit employs a full-time captain, Dan Cleveland, and relies on around 15 crew and volunteer deckhands. Sailing on the ship teaches valuable lessons such as maritime skills, self-reliance, collaboration and the value of adventure, Meyers said.
“For the right person, this is a self-changing thing,” Meyers said.
The schooner lately has been taking out at-risk middle and high school students thanks to a modest grant received from the city of Charleston. The city also assists the operation of the Spirit by providing dock space at the Maritime Center at no cost.
Brumby McLeod, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at the college, is spearheading academic programming involving the Spirit. Already he’s signing up students for a Caribbean excursion that starts in January.
Now part of the business school, McLeod is calling on his experience as a trip leader and leveraging the college’s reputation for study-abroad programs, he said. In fact, it was partly opportunities to travel with students that lured him to Charleston from the University of South Carolina, he added.
“The Spirit of South Carolina was looking for a partner, someone who could put together a program that was adventurous,” and had broad appeal, McLeod said. The Spirit team needed an academic champion.
It isn’t the first time the Spirit embarked on an academic excursion. In January 2018 it set off for the Caribbean with a team of Citadel cadets on board, but the school opted not to continue with such trips due to fading interest among students, according to the former Citadel at Sea program director, Don Sparks.
That might be because bad weather prompted a nearly three-week delay at the outset of the trip, then caused the vessel to pitch and roll through heavy seas on its way to Puerto Rico, leaving some of its passengers a bit traumatized, Sparks said.
“It set a bad tone,” he said, noting that some of the students had little offshore sailing know-how. “On a sailboat, there are always uncontrollable variables.”
Nevertheless, the rest of the voyage was terrific, Sparks said. Students met with academics and officials in each port, learned a lot and had a unique seafaring adventure.
“I think it was amazing experience,” said Sparks, who is now retired from The Citadel. “I regret (the program) couldn’t continue.”
The Spirit, a replica of the 1879 vessel Frances Elizabeth, was completed in 2007. By 2014, the foundation in control of the ship was struggling with mounting debts and decided to sell it. In 2017, real estate developer Mike Bennett and luxury car dealership owner Tommy Baker bought the ship at a foreclosure auction, refitted it to meet Coast Guard seaworthy standards, then donated it to a newly formed nonprofit, Spirit of South Carolina, Inc., for educational use.
Sailing on Spirit is a hands-on experience. Many people are needed to hoist and lower sails, all pulling hard on thick lines. On a recent sunset cruise in Charleston Harbor, the first meant for individual patrons (who pay $65 each), Captain Dan provided meticulous instructions and First Mate Charlie Porzelt help guide participants with their tasks and offered a history lesson as the ship made its way up and down the harbor.
The College of Charleston’s Adventure at Sea program McLeod helped devise consists of courses for credit in sailing, economics, cultural studies, and hospitality and tourism. It costs $15,000 per student, which includes room and board and transportation. Tuition expenses are separate. Wi-fi on the boat makes it possible for students to attend virtual courses and access learning materials.
The first big trip starts Jan. 8 in St. Thomas and finishes April 23 in Charleston, with stops in eight countries and territories. Another potential trip would take the Spirit and her explorers up the eastern seaboard, according to Meyers and McLeod.
“We wanted this to be a more developmental experience for students,” McLeod said, adding that the historical and economic links between the Caribbean and Charleston are worth studying.
“It’s a great way to learn about the countries that were so influential to Charleston history, both good and bad,” he said.