There was a time when it looked as if the schooner Virginia was cursed.
Severe money problems, a muddled mission, political bickering and cracked masts — all of that and more plagued the wooden sailing vessel, a reproduction of a 1917 pilot schooner that once sliced through the waters of
Today, the strife has abated enough to allow a rebirth. Ending two years of public inactivity, the Virginia will take center stage at OpSail 2012 festivities in
Pushing beyond its troubled past has required muscle, creativity and cash.
"With OpSail, the world is looking at Norfolk," said Chris Burns, a leader of the non-profit Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation, which owns the vessel. "To have our ambassador back on the water, fully rigged is wonderful. It's taken a lot of people doing the right thing, lots of in-kind contributions, lots of labors of love."
Built with a combination of public and private funds — along with countless hours of labor by local volunteers — the Virginia was launched in 2004 amid much fanfare. As much as $5 million in public money was pumped into the project for construction and operation.
The ship was to serve as a flagship for the Commonwealth of Virginia, a goodwill ambassador. It would also help teach school children about history and the environment.
For a short time, the Virginia experienced smooth sailing. As the economy soured, though, state support was withdrawn. Private sector support faltered, too. The tall ship quickly found itself navigating treacherous financial waters.
"We thought we would have more private, more community support," said Palmer S. Rutherford Jr., a volunteer supporter of the ship. "It may be our fault that we didn't develop them when this was just an idea. We thought the private sector would flock to this, with our maritime history and background."
By December 2009, something had to be done. The ship, in terms of dollars and cents, was sunk. The foundation's board of directors called the Virginia home from the Caribbean and laid off its crew. The ship sat idle for months. There was talk of putting it on the auction block.
"Those were not good conversations, no fun," said Burns. "We all realized if it's lost, they'll never build another one."
Today, it looks as if the clouds of doom have lifted — at least for the time being.
In April, the Virginia's faulty masts were replaced, thanks to a successful fundraising campaign and in-kind support from the local maritime industry players including Lyon Shipyard.
Those repairs made it possible for the Virginia — which had been hobbled since the end of 2009 — to sail again. It performed well in a pair of short shakedown cruises last month.
The ship will play a starring role during OpSail's Parade of Sail on Friday, June 8. The Virginia will be anchored in Norfolk's harbor to welcome each of the tall ships arriving at the waterfront.
At last, the schooner's future seems to be worth celebrating, too. The ship has entered into an official relationship with Nauticus, the maritime center in downtown Norfolk. There, it's to serve as the centerpiece of a new community sailing center scheduled to launch in 2013. Last month, Jane Batten pledged $1.5 million to support the center, which is intended in part to serve needy children.
Through the agreement, Nauticus will help cover much of the Virginia's significant operating costs.
"The idea is that we at Nauticus will operate the boat this summer and next summer," said John Elliker, who oversees both the Virginia and the Battleship Wisconsin for Nauticus. "If it turns out that we can make it work economically, after that trial period, then the Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation will work hard to retire the ship's debt. Then, it could become a permanent part of the sailing center."
Burns said he's feeling optimistic about the Virginia's prospects. "I'm very encouraged. It's been a long fight ... After all those roadblocks and barriers, it's a pretty neat time for us."
No group felt the pain of the schooner's recent tribulations more than the volunteers who helped maintain the ship. During the schooner Virginia's darkest hours, a core group of about 15 were steadfast, working to repair, paint, scrub and swab as needed.
"A wooden boat is a jealous and demanding mistress," said Rutherford, a schooner volunteer and retired attorney. "She needs lots of constant attention."
With no professional crew on board daily, small problems could quickly become big ones. Disaster was averted, though. "In last 12 months, we've been trying to bring her back up to the standard we hold," Rutherford said. "We're there. She has new paint, new masts. She's never looked so good."
For now at least, the specter of the schooner's demise has been banished from the waterfront.
The Virginia's captain, Stefan Edick, has seen similar dramas unfold before. Edick has worked on as many as 15 tall ships over his 20-year career.
"The schooner's plight is not uncommon," he said. "Several vessels nationwide have been laid up recently. It all has to do with the economy ... Running wooden vessels, traditionally rigged vessels, has always been a challenge. It was during the age of sail and it is today ... But this is the beginning of a long road back."
The ship's near-death experience has left her supporters shaken, but ultimately relieved.
"It would be tragic if we lost the Virginia," Russ Sage, an active volunteer who lives in
"This is our heritage. We are a great seafaring nation. We have a rich, rich maritime history, rich naval history," Sage said. "If we lost the Virginia, we would lose part of the heart of Hampton Roads."
Sage grew up in Hampton and spent summers of his youth sailing around the Back River. His grandfather worked as a waterman on the Eastern Shore. He has a personal connection to local seafaring history.
"It's part of our DNA, not only this area, but the whole nation," he said. "I feel privileged and humbled to be a small part of it."
A perilous course: Key dates for the schooner Virginia
Fall 2002 — Construction on schooner Virginia begins at the Norfolk waterfront. Peter Boudreau and his company, Tri-Coastal Marine, were selected to build the ship. Boudreau also created Pride of Baltimore II.
Oct. 21, 2002 — Keel of Virginia is laid.
Dec. 10, 2004 — Commonwealth of Virginia's first lady, Lisa Collis, christens the schooner Virginia. Her husband, Gov. Mark R. Warner, tells a crowd that "schooner Virginia is a piece of living history" that will help to promote the state.
May 17, 2005 — Original masts are installed.
June 3, 2005 — Schooner is transferred from its builders to owners, the Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation. Cost of construction is more than $3 million.
June 15, 2005 — Virginia glides up the
2007 — Schooner Virginia sets record (11 hours, 19 minutes) in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race.
April 27, 2007 — Virginia returns to downtown Hampton as part of the
December 2009 — Virginia is called back to Norfolk from a cruise in the Caribbean, crew is laid off.
June 9, 2010 — Virginia is moved to Nauticus in downtown Norfolk.
Oct. 28, 2010 — Daily Press editorial criticizes state expenditure on the Virginia. "It is a good idea, and the Virginia is an impressive sight under way. But it's an idea that should be not just run but also funded by the private sector."
December 2011 — At Lyon Shipyard in Norfolk, schooner Virginia's two cracked masts — as well as booms and spars — are removed. They are replaced on April 16, 2012, at a cost of $100,000.
May 23, 2012 —Jane Batten makes gift of $1.5 million to support operations and programming of Sail Nauticus, a community sailing center with a mission that includes serving students with financial need. The center, scheduled to open in summer of 2013, will take over operations of the schooner Virginia and run programs on the Norfolk waterfront from docks at Nauticus.
Sources: Daily Press, Associated Press, Virginian-Pilot
Your guide to OpSail 2012
See today's Good Life section for a full overview of the OpSail 2012 Virginia event happening in the waters of Hampton Roads June 6-12. There, you'll find details about tall ships, entertainment schedules and tips on how to enjoy the celebration of the maritime experience past and present.