Seaworthy

On the schooner Sultana, passengers get an education about the Colonial era and the Chesapeake Bay -- and they also learn something about community spirit.

Eastern Shore

August 25, 2002|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special to the Sun

It's a small ship, just over 50 feet long, but everything else about the Sultana is big -- its style, its story and, most of all, its presence in the Eastern Shore town that built it.

If ever a ship has held a community in its thrall, surely it is this one. Folks in historic Chestertown watched the Sultana being built, launched and, just over a year ago, commissioned at the town dock.

Now, this bewitching vessel -- a reproduction of the 1768 schooner Sultana -- is making public sails from its home port on the Chester River as well as from St. Michaels and Annapolis.

As Barry Treftz, a passenger on his inaugural outing, put it recently: "Wow. Everybody in Maryland should do this, just to appreciate where we live. You know what really surprises me? The quiet. It's just so quiet."

Treftz lives in Galena, 12 miles from the Sultana's dock. I live even closer, just a few blocks away. In the months since the Sultana tied up at the Cannon Street pier, I've had lots of visitors stop and ask about the boat. One woman even wondered if it was part of a movie set. Looking at the Sultana, you realize that's a perfectly reasonable question.

My favorite time to watch the Sultana is on damp, gray mornings when just its bones show through the mist. But to sail on it? Over the last few months, I've gone out three times -- once on a public sail from St. Michaels, once from Chestertown on an educational excursion with an energetic group of fourth-graders, and the last time, again from home port, to watch the Sultana take part in a Revolutionary War re-enactment exercise.

Like Treftz said: "Wow."

'A proper vessel'

Today, the Sultana operates primarily as the "Schoolship of the Chesapeake," an educational vessel that will serve thousands of students this year. The original ship had a far different mission. That Sultana was built in Boston in 1767 as a merchant cargo schooner but its heft and tight, seaworthy lines attracted the attention of the British Royal Navy, which bought the ship a year later to help enforce the newly enacted tea taxes on the North American coast.

"Has the Character of being a good Sailor. ... Appears well wrot & put together ... a proper vessel fit for his Majesty's service," noted the Royal Navy shipwrights who surveyed the Sultana before it was refitted, armed and provisioned.

The smallest schooner ever to serve in the Royal Navy, Sultana patrolled the Chesapeake, Delaware and Narragansett bays, among other waters, from 1768 to 1772, often coming under attack from rebellious colonists. But, because the ship was undermanned and insufficiently armed, the Sultana was relieved of duty, returned to England and sold out of the admiralty.

That might have been the end of the Sultana except that it was one of the most thoroughly documented American-built vessels from the Colonial period. Drawings, logbooks, crew lists and correspondence all survived.

More than two centuries later, drawings of the Sultana and, later, three-dimensional models, caught the eye of John Swain, an Eastern Shore boat builder.

"I don't know, she's such a pretty little ship," says Swain, who during a 36-year career has built 65 boats, though none of the Sultana's tonnage, size and historical significance. "I guess I got hooked," he says. "I wanted to build her."

A few years ago, Swain approached his friend and colleague Drew McMullen with the idea. The two had just finished a project reconstructing a Chesa-peake Bay skipjack and oyster buy boat for Echo Hill Outdoor School not far from Chestertown.

"A week before I was going to move away, John Swain pulled out a drawing of the Sultana and said, 'Let's build this.' He had seen a vessel in Holland that had been built by a small town," says McMullen, now executive director of Sultana Projects Inc., the nonprofit group that operates the Sultana and its programming. "They pulled it off in that small town," McMullen remembers Swain saying. "Why not Chestertown?"

In 1997, the two assembled a business plan and mission statement, then pitched the idea to the community. The Sultana would be a school ship -- a hands-on living classroom where students would learn about Colonial history and the natural environment of the Chesapeake Bay.

The community bit. With primary patronage coming from the community group Chester River Craft & Art, construction began at a shipyard just blocks from Chestertown's historic waterfront in late 1998. It was a huge effort, with as many as five shipwrights supervising more than 100 regular volunteers, among many others -- including 3,000 schoolchildren. In all, volunteers contributed more than 50,000 hours to the $1.25 million project.

The hull was built from original plans. What the shipwrights didn't know was re-created from logbooks and nautical practices of the era. Virtually nothing was bought off the shelf. Even the nuts and bolts were custom-made. Though power tools were used, everything was finished with traditional tools.

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