18th-century replica ship takes shape on Hudson Some observers wonder if $5.7 million project is worth the cost

February 24, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ALBANY, N.Y. — ALBANY. N.Y. - The reproduction of a historic 171-foot-long square-rigged ship that was the pride of Salem, Mass., is taking shape in an old fertilizer factory up the Hudson River.

Dubbed Friendship after an 18th-century ship of the same name, this reproduction is the largest, full-rigged, U.S.-built vessel to be built in the modern era of tall ships.

If all goes according to plan, the vessel will be launched this summer before taking up permanent residence on Derby Wharf at the National Parks Service's Maritime National Historic Site in Salem.

"The ship will complete the picture of life here two centuries ago," said Steven Kesselman, superintendent of Salem Maritime.

The ship's masts and yardarms towering above Derby Wharf will be a much-needed reminder to tourists that historic Salem had more than witch trials, according to the National Parks Service. Salem, which thrived on a world trade of luxury goods, was one of the five major harbors in the new nation. It is the only port with some original piers still intact, according to park officials.

A tall ship - wheelchair-accessible, no less - will provide an appropriate touch, officials add. But the $5.7 million price tag is raising eyebrows.

Some observers wonder why the National Park Service, which seems basically in need of a giant stage prop, has settled on a fully operational, complicated sailing machine equipped with twin, 300-horsepower diesel engines, and certified to carry 149 passengers and serve as a sail-training school for 49 students.

"It's very hard to see how this kind of money can be justified for a vessel that does not as yet have a well-thought-out sea program to support it," said Rafe Parker, chairman of the National Maritime Alliance, an organization that serves a wide range of sea-related institutions.

Kesselman, however, said the sailing capabilities and Coast Guard certifications will allow him to "keep his options open" for possible trips. And Annie Harris, another director in the project, stressed there has not been time to develop a sailing mission statement.

Harris runs the Salem Partnership, which raised $1.4 million in private and public funds to supplement the $4.3 million federal appropriation.

Massachusetts has promised to make good on a $500,000 commitment that will assure the project's timely completion, Harris said.

"Sailing the ship, perhaps taking two weeklong voyages yearly when tourist numbers are low, is part of a plan we can only now begin to refine," she said.

Who will serve as crew and skipper and who will pay the estimated $300,000 annual upkeep charges for a complex contraption with more than six miles of lines and 15 sails is unclear.

What is all but certain is that Salem is just months away from welcoming the hull of the tall ship - spars and rigging will take another year to install at Derby Wharf.

The original square-rigged Friendship existed at the turn of the -- 18th century, and was typical of the workhorses in the commercial sailing fleet that made Salem one of the wealthiest American ports 200 years ago.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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