BOOTHBAY HARBOR — The schooner Ernestina-Morrissey is the state ship of Massachusetts, but for the next three years it will be docked at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard undergoing a $6 million bow-to-stern retrofit.

The 156-foot, two-masted wooden schooner, built as a fishing vessel in 1894 and made famous for its explorations of the Arctic Circle in the 1930s and 1940s, was towed to the shipyard on Monday morning by a tugboat from Massachusetts.

Over the next several months, workers at the shipyard will begin tearing the ship apart and then will build an enclosure around the vessel to allow for year-round maintenance.

“Everything you’re looking at is coming off,” said Capt. David Thompson on Monday while offering a tour of the ship. “It’s the only way to keep this old lady going.”

By everything, he means redesigning and rebuilding the keel to lower the ship’s center of gravity, rebuilding its bulkheads to ensure they are water-tight and overhauling the cabins below deck.

Eric Graves, manager of the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, said the contract on the Ernestina-Morrissey will be good for business and good for the community.

“This is a great project for us. It will allow us to hire some new workers and keep us busy for some time,” he said Monday. “And we hope to do some educational activities as well.”

Graves said it’s not yet clear how many new workers will be hired, but he expects between 15 and 20 people to work on the project. The shipyard’s staffing varies, but is usually about 10 to 15 people.

The contract, the largest ever for the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, was awarded last fall by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. It will be paid for through public funds and donations, including nearly $3 million from the Hildreth family of Boston, which has been advocating for the ship’s restoration.

Once the project is completed, the schooner will be used as a training vessel for Massachusetts Maritime Academy students – as many as two dozen at a time.

The Ernestina-Morrissey retrofit will be the highest-profile project for the Maine shipyard since its 2012 work on the Bounty, a well-known wooden replica ship that famously sank off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy only weeks after it left the Maine shipyard.

Capt. Robin Walbridge and one of his crew members, Claudene Christian, were killed; 14 others survived

An investigation into the Bounty’s sinking by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Walbridge was to blame for not heeding weather reports, but the report also cited incomplete or substandard maintenance and repairs done at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard.

Nearly all of those repairs were conducted by Bounty crew members, not shipyard employees, according to the report. The Maine shipyard has never been implicated in any wrongdoing.

The Ernestina-Morrissey, originally named the Effie Morrissey after its first captain’s daughter, has an unrivaled maritime history, first as a cod fishing vessel in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.

“It was only built to last about 10 years as a fishing vessel,” Thompson said. “Now, it’s the oldest of the Grand Banks schooners left.”

Capt. Robert Bartlett bought the schooner in 1925 and began using it to carry Arctic explorers. In 1940, Bartlett sailed to within 578 miles of the North Pole – the farthest on record by that point.

Bartlett died in 1946 and two years later, a man named Henrique Mendes of the Cape Verde Islands off Africa bought the schooner. He renamed it Ernestina after his daughter.

Mendes used the ship for trade until 1977, when he gave it to the United States. The ship did not arrive in the U.S. until 1982, but when it did it carried dozens of immigrants and was among of the last tall ships used for that purpose.

The Ernestina-Morrissey, whose permanent home is the State Pier in New Bedford, Massachusetts, became a historic landmark in 1990 but has not been seaworthy since 2004.

After several years of trying to secure funding for renovations, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation sought bids for the work.

Boothbay Harbor was chosen ahead of a Gloucester, Massachusetts, shipyard, in part because it had prior experience working on the schooner, albeit on a much smaller scale, in 2008.

“We’re going to start where we left off,” Graves said. “This ship has had several major repairs over the years, but it’s definitely due for a restoration.”


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