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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bringing Amistad Back to Life

Amistad returning to the water on April 23, 2012
Common wisdom has it that ships and sailors rot in port.  For the last two years, Amistad has been tied to a dock in Mystic, Connecticut, with her black paint aging to a charcoal color and her brightwork peeling and chipping.  Her topmasts, yards and gaffs were removed after she limped home following a rig failure during her return from her trip to Cuba.  Time and inactivity have not been kind to her.  Over the last few weeks, though, things have begun to turn around for the old girl and she's being rerigged to sail this summer and, two weeks ago, I traveled up to Mystic to be part of the process.

On April 22, shortly after the last "Amen" was said at Calvin Reformed Church, where I've been the guest preacher for the last few weeks, I got on a train for Mystic.  I was intending to stay aboard the boat that night, but found that she was still out of the water at the Henry B. DuPont Shipyard at Mystic, so I ended up in a room at the Howard Johnson's in Mystic, until the next day, when the ship was returned to the water.  

That evening, I enjoyed dinner with Greg Belanger, Amistad America's CEO, and Hanifa Washington, Amistad's program coordinator, and heard about Amistad's partnership with Ocean Classroom and plans for the coming sailing season.  As things stand now, Amistad will be in home waters for the first part of the summer, then will travel up to Halifax in August.  Before hurricane season, she'll make her way to the island of Hispaniola, which holds the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and where Amistad will work with stateless children, caught between the governments of the two nations, building a school at an orphanage and doing advocacy work with the two governments and the United Nations to help correct the situation.

View of the shipyard from Amistad's deck.    Just beyond
the path are the ship's fore and main gaffs, as well as her
bowsprit.  The end of the brand new jibboom, wrapped in
plastic, is at the extreme left of the photo.
On the 23rd, the lift dock lowered Amistad into the water and we moved her to a slip just outside of the shipyard, which had only just been vacated by another Baltimore clipper, the privateer Lynx.  The crew (such as we were) were able to move aboard, clearing rigging out of the bunks so we would have a space to sleep.  There was lots to be done and Rebecca, the ship's rigger, was busy dealing with rust on various blocks and other fittings and then carrying them aloft in preparation for running lines.  I worked below for much of the 23rd, getting the galley back into working order and lamenting how much gunk can accumulate with two year's worth of neglect.

Over the next few days, we brought Amistad's gaffs and new jibboom from storage in the boatshed, then turned our attention to the storage container full of the ship's gear, which is located on the other side of Greenmanville Avenue, at the back edge of Mystic Seaport's parking lot.  Chris, the carpenter, let me borrow his pickup truck and Greg, Hanifa and I loaded up a couple truckfuls of standing and running rigging, which we brought back to the ship.

The first load of rigging from the
storage container.
Meanwhile, a couple guys from the shipyard used their forklift to lift our Zodiac from the roof of the container and drive it across so we could paint the bottom, inflate it, and get it ready to use as Amistad's tender.  While I worked on the Zodiac, a crew of guys were painting the ship black, working from floats alongside the vessel.  The plan was that, by the time that they were done painting the port side, we'd be able to have the small boat in the water to use as a mini-tug so we could turn the ship around and paint the starboard side.

I worked on developing a nice sunburn as we hoisted blocks aloft and carried rigging aboard, very roughly arranging it on deck to ease the process of getting everything into place when the time would come.  For me, though, my time was over and I had to leave the vessel and my crewmates so I could return to my CPE program at Norwalk Hospital, at least until I can scrape together a few more days to come back and help some more.

You can follow Amistad's progress at:
and on facebook at

Gear ranged around Amistad's deck and cabin tops.  There's much more gear alongside in the shipyard
and still in the storage container.


Toby Clarkson said...

Great work Paul! Amistad is in good hands! Brings back so many awesome memories!

Alvah said...

Hi Paul,
My wife, Rita, and I try to keep up with Amistad news. It was good to read your post. Are you going to Norwich with them? Who is the current crew, especially engineer and cook.
We're living off the grid on an Arizona ranch with our 2 horses, 2 donkeys, chicken flock and dogs. Alvah stay busy being a writer and rancher and Rita teaches 1st grade. Alvah will be returning to New England again this summer. Rita needs to stay home with the critters.
Alvah MacWilliam

Paul Bryant-Smith said...

Alvah, it is great to hear from you. I'm afraid I have no clue who the current crew is, since I haven't been able to carve out any more time for Amistad since this post, though I hope to be able to spend a bit of time aboard this summer. You could find the information at

I'd love to see you when you come out to New England in the fall. Send me an email at