Hewed From History
In Charleston, South Carolina, shipwrights re-create a 19th-century schooner
Under a soaring white tent, two volunteers coated in sawdust pull a 15-foot-long oak plank through an eight-foot-tall band saw. Gas-powered planers and circular saws howl and screech. The deafening noise suits the half-dozen men armed with power tools in a makeshift shipyard near the waterfront in Charleston, South Carolina, just fine. When you build a tall ship, you want people to take notice. The commotion traces back almost three years, when a visit by two-dozen tall ships, in June of 2000, got several Charlestonians lamenting the city’s neglect of its own rich maritime heritage. Over beers one night, Mark Bayne, a 43-year-old boatwright, confessed that building such a ship was nothing less than his lifelong dream. His friend Charlie Sneed suggested that he just might be able to set up a nonprofit foundation to support such an effort. Soon after, the catalog of historic ship plans the two ordered from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History set them to work.
Today, a 90-foot pilot schooner is rising, rib by plank, in a former vacant lot between Charleston’s historic district and its commercial harbor. Built along the lines—though half again as large—of the Frances Elizabeth, an 1879 schooner, Spirit of South Carolina is designed to carry 20 young people on extended educational sailing voyages to be organized by the South Carolina Maritime Heritage Foundation and scheduled to begin next year.
The ship is only the most conspicuous aspect of the city’s revived interest in its nautical history. A few feet away from her keel, a small-scale maritime museum, the only one of its kind in the state, will soon welcome visitors. More than 150 volunteers have signed on to hoist futtocks (curved ship ribbing), carve wooden belaying pins (cleatlike projections to which ropes are secured) and lead visitors through the shipyard’s maze of live-oak and yellow-pine planks. And a once-venerable Charleston shipbuilding family, scattered from the East Coast to the West, has been reunited—all because of one drawing of a long-vanished vessel, purchased from the catalog by mail order for $3. "That single piece of paper sent us on a wonderful journey through the past," says Sneed, "pointing us to pieces of a puzzle that we didn’t even know were out there."
The paper was a "lines drawing"—a gridlike diagram based either on a vessel’s precise measurements or extrapolated from a ship-model hull—of a ship built, the drawing indicated, by the "Pegnal & Co. shipyard," which neither Sneed nor Bayne had ever heard of.
But a few weeks after the drawing arrived, Sneed discovered, in a book about boats of the American Southeast, a photograph of the pilot schooner Frances Elizabeth racing off the coast of Georgia in 1889. Flipping to the book’s index, the insurance agent turned recreational sailor found a reference to a "Pregnall" shipyard in 19th-century Charleston. "I sat straight up in my seat," he recalls. "The names—Pegnal and Pregnall—were too close not to match." He grabbed a Charleston telephone book and dialed the only Pregnall listed. To his delight, the man who answered the call turned out to be none other than the great-grandson of shipyard owner Samuel J. Pregnall. And not only was Wally Pregnall, a 42-year-old local hospital employee, well-versed in the history of his ancestor’s shipyard, he even owned a map that showed its location, not far from the vacant lot where the Spirit of South Carolina is rising today.
Caught up in the spirit of the Spirit, Pregnall began contacting relatives as far away as California to invite them to Charleston for a family reunion, held to coincide with the Spirit’s keel-laying ceremony in June 2001. Some 70 members of his far-flung family showed up.
Meanwhile, Sneed had tracked down Randall Swan, great-grandson of the harbor pilot who captained the Frances Elizabeth during the Georgia race, and learned that the schooner burned and sank in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River in 1912. From Richard Lawrence, chief of North Carolina’s underwater archaeology office in the town of Kure Beach, Sneed also discovered that the Frances Elizabeth’s likely wreck had been located, by means of sonar surveying, in 1993. An exploratory dive is planned this spring. "Every time we turn around," Bayne says, "the lines drawing leads to something new."
"Lines," as they are known, are part of a massive and growing collection of watercraft plans housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. There are diagrams of bark canoes, plywood dinghies, clipper ships, sidewheel steamers, skipjacks, tugboats, halibut schooners, whaleboats, mullet skiffs, oyster schooners and warships. The late Howard Irving Chapelle, a naval architect and Smithsonian curator in the 1950s and ’60s, collected most of them. In the course of 40 years, he himself drew lines of every major type of working sailing vessel on the Eastern Seaboard and many from the West Coast. In addition, the collection includes lines from several hundreds of vessels and models surveyed through the Historical American Merchant Marine Survey, a 1930s Works Progress Administration program; the William Maxwell Blake Collection of Far East vessel drawings; and a selection of plans for commercial fishing boats built in Seattle, Washington, between 1918 and 1928. New plans are added regularly, donated by ship designers, historians and collections.
The ship plans are "one of the jewels in our maritime collection," says National Museum of American History curator Paul F. Johnston. "These are the only known records for scores of historic ships that have sunk, been scrapped or were abandoned." The significance of the collection, Johnston adds, is enhanced by its accessibility. Each year, the NMAH mails out 600 or so ship-plan catalogs to the public and, from this source, sells hundreds of construction blueprints. The drawings, which can be purchased for between $3 and $5 per page, are sought by ship designers, historians, underwater archaeologists and ship model makers. Says Johnston: "I think a lot of dreamers buy them to paper the walls of their workshops."
Some of those dreamers might do well to visit the Charleston waterfront, where the Spirit’s creators have set up benches for enthusiasts to watch every rib, spar and rail go up. Since shipbuilding offered neither social prestige nor the fast money that came from plantation-style agriculture, "Charleston’s elite kept their backs turned to what went on along the waterfront," says P. C. Coker, author of Charleston’s Maritime Heritage. "Even today, visitors to the city’s museums and houses see nothing to remind them that they are in a seaport, much less such a historic one."
So why are so many people responding to the Spirit? "It’s not only the sailing crowd that is excited about this," Sneed says, "but locals who remember that a great-grandfather came to America on a great rigged vessel. It’s striking a chord with regular people." Some visitors ask for cupfuls of sawdust as mementos. A local woman donated a handcrafted needlepoint pillow to help raise funds. A Florida man shipped up a five-foot-wide painting of the Spirit. And the project’s list of volunteers continues to grow. "They’re like fire ants," says Janet Segal, director of volunteers. "You can’t keep them away."
Although local artist Lee Arthur is a regular, only now, as the Spirit nears completion—its massive frames lying like gigantic wishbones in a huge grid pattern—has he begun to take in the vessel’s full dimensions. "Wow, it’s immense!" he exclaims. "I did not have a clue. You know, you’ll be able to see this ship from across town."
"Darn right," says Sneed.