By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
On Monday night at 11:15 p.m., a water taxi with about 125 city leaders, business owners and residents departed the Alexandria marina.
Divided between the boat’s roof and front decks, the passengers were carried down the Potomac River toward the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, their colorful glow necklaces the only things visible in the pitch-black of a new moon.
As the lights of the Alexandria waterfront faded into the distance, the fluid arches of the bridge grew brighter, and the passengers strained to see what was waiting for them on the other side.
After crossing under the bridge, the water taxi came to a stop. Still unable to see farther than the few hundred feet of water ahead of them, the passengers began to speculate where it was, their whispers replacing the sound of the engine.
The murmurs suddenly escalated to an eruption of cheers, boat horns and camera flashes when Tall Ship Providence finally sailed into view. As the hour approached midnight, the water taxi guided Providence on the last leg of its long trip, through the open Woodrow Wilson Bridge and to its new home at the Alexandria marina.
The ship, a Revolutionary War era replica, made its way to Alexandria after a weeklong journey from Wiscasset, Maine that included stops in Newport, Rhode Island; Norfolk, Virginia and Hampton, Virginia. As Alexandria’s permanent tall ship, Providence will dock at the G/H Pier near Founders Park until a designated floating dock is built at the foot of King Street next year.
It has been 23 years since Alexandria had a permanent ship along the waterfront. In 1984, the Alexandria Seaport Foundation purchased a three-masted schooner built in 1929 and renamed it Alexandria. Docked in the Potomac River at Waterfront Park, Alexandria served as a living museum and symbol of the city’s maritime past.
By 1996, Alexandria was in need of extensive, expensive repairs, which the Seaport Foundation lacked the funds to do, so the ship was sold. Though the ship was not seaworthy at that point, the new owner sailed it into the Atlantic Ocean anyway, and the ship sank off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina that December.
Replacing that ship was something that had been discussed for years, but no action was taken until Scott Shaw, partner with Alexandria Restaurant Partners and chair of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership’s board of directors, led the drive to find a tall ship for the waterfront in 2017. The effort also received the support of City Manager Mark Jinks, then-Mayor Allison Silberberg and city council.
“We had three different tall ships visit over a tight period in 2017,” Shaw said. “I just noticed every time we got a tall ship, the crowds were crazy and all ages – kids, retirees, a lot of locals, area residents, people coming in from out of town to see it.”
After the temporary visits, Shaw put together an exploratory committee with representatives from AEDP, the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, the Potomac Riverboat Company and the Seaport Foundation to discuss the logistics of permanently bringing a tall ship to Alexandria.
“They gave me a lot of really great feedback, including, ‘Hey, here are some really big obstacles you need to think about,’” Shaw said.
The main obstacles were price, size, maintenance and historic significance, Shaw said. First, the ship needed to be big enough to be meaningful but small enough to navigate the Potomac and be cost effective. It had to be a replica with a fiberglass hull, since an original would be too expensive to maintain. And while it wasn’t a requirement, the group wanted a ship with history.
“I Googled, ‘tall ships for sale,’” Shaw said. “I found the Providence in very sad shape up in Rhode Island outside of Newport, and it checked all [the] boxes.”
Providence is about 65-by-22 feet wide, not including its bowsprits. It’s a replica of the first authorized ship in the United States Continental Navy and the first American command of John Paul Jones, the first well-known naval commander in the Revolutionary War.
When Shaw found Providence, the price was right not only because it was a reproduction, but because it was in need of extensive repairs and restorations.
The reproduction was built at the U.S. Navy base in Newport in the 1970s for the American Bicentennial. Over the years, the ship has experienced several changes in private and public ownership. The City of Providence, Rhode Island owned the ship for a period, using it as a symbol of the city. In 2004, the Walt Disney Company leased the ship to appear in the second and third “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. Eventually, however, it was put in dry dock, where it gradually began to deteriorate.
Knowing that acquiring a ship would need to be a private venture, Shaw put together the Tall Ship Providence Foundation in 2017. Since then, the ship has undergone restorations in Massachusetts and Maine.
“It was a serious fixer-upper project, but that kind of worked in our favor because we could raise the money as we went,” Shaw said. “We ended up spending just over $1 million on the acquisition and restoration of the ship. I probably couldn’t raise that out of the gate, but I raised the $200,000 to buy and then kept raising enough to stay ahead of the dockyard bills.”
The majority of the funding has come from local businesses and private donors, Shaw said.
“The first group to support it were the local restauranteurs, because I know them and they had seen that it’s good for business,” Shaw said. “Then I just kept broadening the circle to include Alexandria residents, businesses, and it’s been great.”
In the past two years, the foundation has raised nearly $1.5 million, Shaw said. In that same time period, while Providence was being restored, its foundation in Alexandria was preparing its programming.
The ship will serve as a self-sustaining, for-profit attraction, offering a variety of tours, cruises and education opportunities, according to Clair Sassin, executive director of the Tall Ship Providence Foundation.
“We’re gonna be an attraction, a living-history attraction,” Sassin said. “Alexandria’s a port city, and I think it’s an ideal place to have a tall ship. Our goal is to entertain, educate and serve as an economic development piece for Alexandria and the region.”
In 2019, programming will include tours every half hour, ranging in price from $10 to $14. Up to 25 guests per tour will gather in the Tall Ship Providence Foundation’s interim visitors center at 1 Cameron St. underneath the Chart House. From there, character interpreters – including a John Paul Jones interpreter with a Scottish accent – will lead them on a tour of the ship’s deck, captain’s cabin and hold.
In addition to daily tours, the Tall Ship Providence Foundation will host weekly themed cruises, including a craft beer cruise on Friday nights and a family-friendly pirate cruise on Saturday mornings. The ship will also be available for birthday parties, private charters and eight-person dinners in the captain’s cabin.
As for educational opportunities, the foundation has already established a partnership with the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, an organization that provides one-on-one mentoring, project-based learning and apprenticeships to 16- through 22-year-olds in need of a new start, according to its website. Many of the organization’s apprentices have had past issues with law enforcement, school, anxiety and depression.
Through the partnership with the Tall Ship Providence Foundation, the Seaport Foundation’s apprentices will help maintain the ship.
“I knew the impact [the Seaport Foundation] was having on kids’ lives,” Shaw said. “And we thought that, well, if we’re going to bring a ship up here, we’re going to need a crew and people to do maintenance and woodworking projects because even if the hull is fiberglass, everything else is wood on this ship.”
One of the Seaport Foundation’s apprentices spent the last year in Maine working on Providence’s restorations under a master craftsman, Shaw said. That apprentice now has a full-time job as a shipwright in Maine.
“We’re looking forward to kind of strengthening this partnership in the months and years to come,” Shaw said.
In 2020, the Tall Ship Providence Foundation plans to relocate to a permanent visitor’s center at the foot of King Street, where the city has set aside funding to build a floating dock for Providence. While acquiring the ship was largely a private venture, Shaw said the city’s support has been overwhelming.
“The tall ship is going to serve a lot of different needs for our community,” Mayor Justin Wilson said at a Tuesday morning press conference. “It’s obviously going to be an economic development engine for us. … It’s also going to be a cultural, educational touchstone for our city. … We look forward to many years in advance of using the Tall Ship Providence as a symbol of our city and as a symbol of our city’s history.”
The foundation has not set a start date for tours and cruises, since the ship will require more work now that it has made its way to Alexandria. For more information, visit tallshipprovidence.org.