Captain prepares to sail historic Elissa to Florida in ship challenge
Captaining a boat that was first launched in 1877 comes with a particularly serious sense of responsibility.
When the tall ship Elissa sails from Galveston to Pensacola, Fla., in April, its recently named captain, John Svendsen, will feel the weight of history upon his shoulders.
“Sailing a historical vessel of this nature comes with a fair amount of responsibility,” Svendsen said. “Both for the lives of the sailors and for the artifact of the ship itself.”
The Elissa, a three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship berthed at Pier 21 on the island, will be participating in the historic sail as part of the Tall Ships Challenge, which will begin in Galveston, move to New Orleans and culminate in Pensacola on April 15.
Several other historic ships, including the Dutch ship Oosterschelde built in 1918, the Cook Islands-based Picton Castle and the 1939 tall ship When and If, which calls Key West its homeport, will join the Elissa in the sail. Other ships are expected to be announced soon, Galveston Historical Foundation officials said.
“This is not something that happens every year,” said Will Wright, spokesman for the Galveston Historical Foundation. “The Elissa is going to be the main event.”
The Tall Ships Challenge series began in 2001 as an opportunity for people to watch such historic vessels in different races. The 2018 edition is the first along the Gulf Coast of the United States, officials said.
“There’s a huge amount of preparation that goes into this,” said Mark Scibinico, port captain for the Galveston Historical Foundation. “A huge bulk of the crew will be volunteers of the historical foundation. You’re trying to keep track of everything. This is basically the world’s biggest sailing camper.”
For people like Scibinico and Svendsen, who both will be part of the 40-something crew on the Elissa during the race, the event is an opportunity to do what they like best — be at sea.
Each leg of the race will take about three or four days and at least a third of the crew will work to guide the ship at all times, Scibinico said.
“There’s not really any place for you to stop and park along the way,” Scibinico said.
To help oversee the army of volunteers and other sailors, the staff will rely on the expertise of Svendsen, who has worked on historic ships like the Elissa for years.
“This will be the first iron-hull vessel I’ve sailed,” Svendsen said. “But I’ve sailed a riveted steel hull before, so I’m somewhat familiar.”
Svendsen served as the chief mate for the Elissa on a previous outing, so officials felt confident selecting him to lead it this time around, Scibinico said.
Svendsen, who was born in Minnesota, has spent time in Hawaii and California captaining historic vessels and teaching students the skills to work on ships, he said.
Officials are already beginning maintenance work on the Elissa, and Svendsen made a visit to the island in November to begin further familiarizing himself with the ship, Scibinico said.
“It’s an incredible present to history and to maritime skill to be able to take this ship out to sail,” Scibinico said.