Sail On: Tall Ship Elissa Ready For Repairs

This morning, the tall ship Elissa begins a short trip from her home in Galveston to a shipyard in Texas City for the start of repairs that should get her sailing in the open water again soon. The people who care for the Elissa say she's a state treasure that needs to be preserved.

"My name is Jamie White. I'm the director the Texas Seaport Museum, a project of the Galveston Historical Foundation
and we're standing on board the decks of the 1877 iron barque Elissa at Pier 21 in Galveston."

White looks like a ship captain, with a big white beard and a thorough knowledge of how a three-masted tall ship like Elissa works. He says she sustained damage to her hull during Hurricane Ike four years ago that was only discovered last year. Small holes had formed on the bottom of the hull  from electrolytic corrosion. White says it was as if tiny lightning bolts had zapped Elissa.

"What happens is that that blows off the anti-corrosive coatings, the anti-fouling coatings and that allows the electro-chemical reaction to begin. There may have been a biological component due to the fact that Hurricane Ike, the storm surge churned-up the waters and made it a nutrient-rich soup for sulfate-reducing bacteria, similar to what's happening on the Titanic down at the bottom of the Atlantic."

It will take experts at Bollinger Shipyard in League City about two months to repair Elissa and get her ready to sail again.

"She's riveted wrought iron. Most of the ships you see today, in fact all the ships almost, are modern alloys, steel, aluminum, etc.. Elissa is one of only a handful of iron sailing ships left in the world and one of only three still sailing."

In fact, White says Elissa is very likely the most-traveled ship still on the water.

"You know, she started of as this incredibly beautiful three-masted barque and she ended up her days smuggling cigarettes, a smuggler, literally a pirate ship between Yugoslavia and Italy. You know, they took all of her masts down and they changed the bow a little bit, but it was still the ship. It was still Elissa trying to make a living. As far as we can ascertain, she is the longest-lived, most active vessel on the face of the world."

White, who likes to say that Elissa will "be as good as old" when the repairs are complete, wants the old ship around for many more decades.

"Without Elissa and vessels like The Elissa, there wouldn't have been a Galveston. Galveston is an island, so by definition, everything arrived by sea. Before the bridges, there were ships, there were decks of ships similar to the deck that we're standing on now. All of the wealth that you see, the mansions, the stately homes etc. on Galveston were all born upon decks of sailing ships and later on freighters."

About 65-percent of Elissa is still original, a remarkable feat for a ship 135 years old. The repairs, which start this week in dry dock, will cost upwards of $2 million.

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...