PORTLAND — A replica of the Amistad, a 19th-century ship taken over by slaves and depicted in a movie of the same name, is undergoing maintenance at a boatyard in Portland Harbor while the finances of its owner are under scrutiny in Connecticut.

Amistad America, the organization that owns the ship, has until the end of the week to file an application for reinstatement of its nonprofit status, which it lost after failing to file tax returns for three years, according to the Connecticut attorney general’s office.

Although the Amistad’s outgoing executive director said he is confident the problem will be resolved, the issue with the tax forms raised concerns with a Connecticut lawmaker, who has demanded an account of how the organization has been spending the $360,000 the state has given it annually.

“When you are dealing with taxpayer money, you owe the taxpayer accountability and transparency,” said Connecticut State Rep. Diana Urban. “This appears as if we have just given money frivolously without any strings attached and that is unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, the ship is being run by a crew from by Damariscotta-based Ocean Classroom Foundation and repaired at Gowen Marine on Commercial Street in Portland.

J.B. Smith, marine supervisor for Ocean Classroom, said Amistad America doesn’t have its own crew, so it hired the foundation last September to manage and staff the ship, which had been idle since its front rig broke returning from a trip to Cuba in 2010.

“It wasn’t delivering much of a message tied up without a mast on it in Mystic, Conn., getting snowed on all winter,” Smith said.

He said the purpose of the Amistad, which was built in Mystic in 2000, is to tell the story of the original ship, which played a significant role in the United States’ abolitionist movement.

Thirty years after the U.S. abolished the slave trade, 53 illegally captured African slaves were being transported on the Amistad between two ports in Cuba, when they managed to free themselves, take over the ship and demand to sail back to Africa.

The ship’s crew, however, sailed to New York instead, where it was captured and taken to Connecticut. The slaves were jailed and tried in a case that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which freed them in a landmark decision.

In addition to the purpose of spreading that story, it was important to get the Amistad sailing again to keep it in ship shape, said Greg Belanger, who facilitated the partnership with Ocean Classroom to get the ship back sailing again.

“When you leave a boat idle, it gets stiff,” Belanger said.

Belanger, who was the executive director of Amistad America, resigned from that position effective July 1. He has become executive director of Ocean Classroom and plans to continue in that role.

He said the two organizations have a contract that expires at the end of June 2014, when it could be renewed.

There are no plans for Amistad to be used for Ocean Classroom programs such as the semester at sea, said Captain Greg Bailey. He said it’s expected to leave Maine when repairs are done.

Urban said she had a hard time figuring out where the ship is, and thinks it should be in Connecticut, “if the taxpayers of Connecticut are paying the bill.”

The Amistad was in the Caribbean during the winter, then made its way north with a recent stop in Philadelphia before docking at Portland Yacht Services on June 4, Bailey said. On Wednesday, the ship was hauled out at Gowen Marine for repairs to its propeller, and to be inspected, washed and painted.

The work is being shared by Portland Yacht Services and Gowen’s, companies that have worked on other projects with Ocean Classroom.

Joe Schmader, president of Gowen’s, said Gowen’s tends to do more mechanical work and Portland Yacht’s expertise is in wood and fiberglass. “By working together, Schmader said, “we’re starting to introduce Portland as a destination for this kind of vessel.”

The ship is expected to go back in the water next week and leave from Portland Yacht Services by the end of June before setting sail for Connecticut, with stops next month in New London, New Haven and Mystic Seaport.

Bailey, the captain, said the ship then will head to Puerto Rico in August, where it take part in the taping of a new NBC series called Crossbones, in which John Malkovich is slated to play pirate Blackbeard.

The television series provides another Maine connection to the ship. Crossbones is based on “The Republic of Pirates,” a book by Portland Press Herald writer Colin Woodard.

Belanger said television contract “will be very helpful to the Amistad financially.”

Urban, however, wasn’t moved by that prospect.

“I don’t care about John Malkovich,” she said. “I care if you filed your (Internal Revenue Service Form) 990.”

 

Leslie Bridgers — 791-6364
[email protected]

 

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