People who love Tall Ships have been waiting to get a glimpse of the SSV (Sailing School Vessel) Oliver Hazard Perry since 2008, when it was towed here from Ontario. We got a good glimpse of it over the weekend in Newport. Though far from complete, it takes very little imagination to see the scale and grace that the Perry will have under sail. But that image of the ship’s future was far from apparent when Tall Ships Rhode Island was first introduced to it.
“I first heard about it from a Canadian friend of mine,” said skipper Richard Bailey, a longtime Rhode Island resident and veteran tall ship captain.
“There was a Canadian group who were making a representation of the HMS Detroit, which was one of the ships captured by Oliver Hazard Perry on Lake Erie. For one reason or another, they ran out of money or interest and my friend told me they wanted to sell the hull. So we negotiated with them and got it for a really good price. They had already spent $2 million on the hull.”
There was one problem with the ship. The Detroit was what is called a “shoal-drafted” ship, designed to navigate the relatively calm bodies of water like Lake Erie. What the far-sighted people of the Tall Ships Rhode Island organization saw was the basis of a tall sailing vessel of their very own.
“It was not an oceangoing ship,” said Bailey. “It had what you call a low freeboard and it was meant to carry guns on the water of a lake. To make it capable of ocean sailing, we had to add another story to the deck.”
Another story could make the ship top heavy and defeat the purpose of raising the deck, Bailey said, so 6,000 lead bricks, weighing 331,650 pounds, were laid into the hull.
If it’s beginning to sound like Bailey knows his sailing ships, rest assured that he does. Bailey was born in Hyannis on Cape Cod but his family moved to Rhode Island when he was 5. He was fascinated by the HMS Rose, after reading about the tall ship in the newspaper. The Rose is a replica of an 18th century Royal Navy frigate that cruised the American coast during the Revolutionary War. In 1972, at the age of 21, Bailey moved to Newport and joined day sails with the tall ship, although it was mostly sitting at a dock through most of the 1970s. Bailey was a quick study and gained more experience on other ships.
“I became a crew member on a lot of sailing yachts and schooners,” said Bailey. “That’s when I made the bad decision to do it for a living.”
He spent his free time learning everything he could about sailing ship maintenance and marine traditions. By 1980, Bailey was trusted enough to deliver sailing yachts all over the world. In 1980, Bailey left Newport to participate in boat deliveries around the world. Fatefully, about four years later he saw a billboard announcing that the Rose had moved to Black Rock Harbor in Connecticut. Bailey went to visit the ship, and the new owner asked him to be its captain. The owner knew Bailey’s reputation and told him about his plans to rebuild the ship, which had been neglected and paid for mistakes made while making the ship. Over a six-year period, they rebuilt the ship and operated it as a Sailing School Vessel until 2001, when it was sold to Hollywood for the making of the 2003 movie, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”
“We actually tried to buy the ship back from them,” said Bailey, “but they decided to let it go to a California museum, in case they wanted to use it for another movie, I suspect.”
Bailey went on to command other tall ships, including the schooners Spirit of Massachusetts, Westward and Harvey Gamage and the 177-foot tall ship, Gazela Primeiro.
There are no plans to sell the Perry to Hollywood or anyone else. The ship was written into legislation in May of 2012 as Rhode Island’s official “Sailing Education Vessel.”
The 196-foot, three-mast, square-rigged tall ship will be the first oceangoing full-rigged ship to be built in this country in over a century. Tall Ships Rhode Island has morphed into Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island (OHPRI). Promet Marine in Providence and Senesco Marine in Quonset have been the shipbuilders for the project, which, if all goes as planned, will be making its maiden voyage in late spring of next year.
OHPRI’s goal is to build a tall ship that offers year-round experiential education-at-sea programs, in the Northeast in summer and the Caribbean in winter. It will hold 35 people on overnight trips and 85 for day trips, plus permanent crew.
Over the weekend, the Perry was seen with only the lower third of her three masts stepped and a bowsprit half the size of what it will be. It’s new paint shows how beautiful the ship will be and Bailey hopes it makes an inspiring impression on potential donors.
“It’s very difficult to raise funds for something ‘sight unseen’ like this, so I’m hoping the progress we made and the way it looks will bring in more support,” said Bailey, who took on the task of selling the hull to supporters at one of the most difficult economic crises the country has ever seen. But his mood has improved along with the ship itself. “You know, we bought the hull on the same day that Lehman Brothers collapsed. I’m hoping people will be in the mood to help us now.”
Bailey and the OHPRI members will show the ship to potential donors and hope that the promise of Rhode Island having its very won tall ship will loosen some purse strings. They still have to raise $3 million to finish the job, but Bailey is confident that it will come.
“I think we are over the mountain top now,” said Bailey. “Before, people really couldn’t see the vision of the Perry. For that, they have got to see the inside and imagine it complete.”