Replica cargo ship readied for launch

Sultana: In the 1770s, it enforced the British tea tax on the Chesapeake. Its replica will be used as a floating classroom.

March 23, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN - For the past three years, the thump of hammers and the high-pitched whine of power saws on Cannon Street has meant something was abuilding here in the seat of Kent County government. Yesterday, it meant the building was finished.

Crews tore away parts of the scaffolding and put finishing touches on the schooner Sultana to make ready this replica of a Colonial era cargo ship for the huge trailer - imagine the world's biggest fork lift - that will carry it today five blocks to the Chester River waterfront. The launch is scheduled for tomorrow.

As the work went on, neighbors and others gathered at the gate of the shipyard to admire the graceful sweep of the white hull, the butterscotch brown of its upper planks and "I-lean," the figurehead at the prow, and to snap pictures.

"I never thought they were going to get done," said Paul McGinn of Rock Hall as he maneuvered for the best photo angle. "When we finally saw the planks go on the frame, I thought it just might happen."

Sultana is the brainchild of John Swain, an Eastern Shore boat builder, and Drew McMullen, who had worked with Swain on an earlier project.

"I was in Holland on a job, and I was looking at boats when I ran across this boat being built by students and volunteers, and I thought that would be a great way to build a boat," Swain said. "When I came back, I got together with Drew and we came up with a plan."

They planned to build a replica in Chestertown and use it to teach elementary and middle school children about history and the environment, McMullen said.

"For somebody born in 1985 or '86, it's hard to give them a real sense of what the Chesapeake Bay means without giving them the historical concept. This is an effective way to do it," he said.

McMullen and Swain fixed on the Sultana, a two-masted square topsail schooner that had sailed the Chesapeake Bay enforcing the British tea tax in the early 1770s, because it was "appropriate to Chestertown," one of the best-preserved Colonial seaports in the country, and because they found "extensive documentation," McMullen said.

The original plans for Sultana, the captain's log and crew lists still exist and that made it possible to create as accurate a replica as possible.

The ship was built in Boston in 1767 as a combination cargo schooner-yacht for the coastal trade but was soon sold to Britain's Royal Navy for use as a revenue cruiser to enforce the tea tax from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Hampton, Va., and up the Chesapeake Bay.

There is no record of its having sailed to Chestertown, but skippers on the bay in that era would surely have seen it. Sultana was slow and small, 97 feet stem to stern, compared with the 173 feet of Pride of Baltimore II.

When the sight of the Union Jack flying from the transom was enough to make other vessels heave to, that was fine. But in the years before the revolution, when the colonists began building bigger, faster ships and defying the crown, the Sultana fell out of favor. The Royal Navy sold it in 1773. No one knows what happened to it after that.

Swain said he always had the Sultana in mind for his project because it is scaled to the size of Chestertown and wouldn't be too much of a financial burden to build and operate.

He and McMullen pieced together about $1 million in grants and corporate sponsorship and went to work with five professional shipwrights and more than 100 volunteers in a former municipal parking lot five blocks from the river.

They harvested nearly 300 Osage orange trees from hedgerows on Eastern Shore farms to fashion the ribs, bought white oak for the hull and deck planks and Douglas fir for the masts and spars. A fireplace below deck is made with custom bricks fashioned in Williamsburg, Va. The sails are being cut in Booth Bay, Maine, from Dacron made to look like old-time canvas.

The volunteers came from as far away as Ohio. Some paid to take courses in shipbuilding specialties. Jim Wagner, who describes himself as "a boat guy" from Lancaster, Pa., has been helping with the project since the first frames went into place. He says he must have milled thousands of trunnels, the wooden nails that hold the deck planks in place.

"When you do this piece by piece, you never get a sense of the whole thing," he said. "But now, you look at the whole thing and you're grateful for the opportunity to have worked on it," he said.

Although the boat will be launched tomorrow, it isn't ready to take on passengers. There is still plenty of work to be done below, and the masts and rig must be put in place before it is commissioned on the Fourth of July.

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