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Living History

A living, breathing piece of South Carolina's Maritime history sailing  Charleston's harbor and beyond with a mission for education, stewardship, and commitment to seamanship.

Spirit of South Carolina and Piloting

It Started with the schooner, Frances Elizabeth

Though almost twice as long and three times as heavy, the Spirit of South Carolina is designed after the Frances Elizabeth, a pilot schooner that was built and launched in Charleston on October 30, 1879 by Samuel J. Pregnall and Brothers Shipyard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pregnall Shipyard was established around 1868 at the current site of Union Pier on Concord St, almost exactly where the Spirit of South Carolina was launched in March 2007.   Samuel Pregnall was only in his 20’s when he started the business and it wasn’t long before the shipyard became one of the best known shipyards of the 1800’s.  The Pregnall Shipyard was the main boat builder, caulker, spar maker, sailmaker, and rigger on the Charleston Peninsula until the yards closing in 1915.

 

The Frances Elizabeth, named after Sam Pregnall’s wife Frances Elizabeth Richardson of Sullivan’s Island, was largely designed after the original schooner yacht America which beat 12 British yachts to win the 100 Guinea Cup in 1851. The cup became afterwards known as America’s Cup. Thereby starting the racing series which still holds up as the longest winning streak in sports history. In addition to its racing prowess, America was known on the southern coast for its later roles as a blockade runner, then captured by the Federal Navy Blockading Fleet and converted to chasing blockade runners. It is likely that Pregnall obtained either a half-model, or actual line plans from a marine broker who specialized in acquiring and selling half-models or plans. 

The design of a pilot schooner was key to success of harbor pilots in those days.  There wasn’t an Association to allocate work among pilots, so it was simply the first pilots vessel to hail or reach a ship that would be the one to drop off a Pilot to pilot it into the harbor and gain a hefty fee.  This made it very important for a pilot boat to be swift and seaworthy.  The Frances Elizabeth was known as a fast schooner and in fact one of the few pictures known to exist is of the ship winning the pilot boat regatta off Tybee Island, GA in 1889.

 

 

 

 

 

The ship was then sold to a group of pilots in Fernandina Beach, FL in 1894 and again in 1911 to three harbor pilots from Southport, NC.  In keeping with the times, the Southport pilots purchased and installed an expensive Globe marine gasoline engine (valued in 1911 at $5000).  Sadly, it is because of the new engine that the Frances Elizabeth met a fiery end and sank on July 21, 1912 off North Carolina’s Cape Fear River.  The Morning Star Newspaper of Wilmington reported the following in July 23, 1912:

“Captain Bertram Adkins, son of Captain J.J. Adkins, was horribly, probably fatally, burned Sunday afternoon, when gasoline leaking from the tank of the pilot boat Frances Elizabeth, bound from Southport to Wilmington, caused an explosion of the engine and tank about two miles this side of Southport, setting fire to the craft, which was consumed by flames”

The Frances Elizabeth lay on the seafloor nearly forgotten until 1993 when Richard Lawrence and a team of underwater archaeologists stumbled upon the remains of the ship.  Lawrence and his crew were surveying the Cape Fear River for shipwrecks before dredging was to begin in the area when they were hailed on the radio by a ferry boat captain that a wreck of a wooden boat lay in the spot they were surveying.  After years of lying on the sea floor the charred hull of the Frances Elizabeth was found under about 2-3 feet of silt near Southport, N.C.

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Frances Elizabeth winning a pilot schooner race off Savannah

The Frances Elizabeth served as a working pilot guiding larger cargo ships in and out of ports for 33 years.  The vessel, though owned by Pregnall was likely leased to Charleston Harbor pilots for the 15 years she operated in Charleston Harbor.

 Pilots signaling to an incoming ship

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Building Spirit of South Carolina

From Concept to Launch

Fast forward to June, 2000.  A Fleet of Tall Ships had just visited Charleston for a Festival. The event got several Charlestonians lamenting the city's neglect of its own rich maritime heritage. Over beers one night, Mark Bayne, a 43-year-old shipwright, 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. The group selected a set identified as the Francis Elizabeth of Charleston.

Additional research around the source of the ship’s plans, and a visit by Volunteer, Dan Machowski to the Mariners Museum at Mystic, CT, led to a half-hull model resembling the hull of the schooner yacht America, as the likely source from which lines were taken for the plans of Francis Elizabeth. America was designed by George Steers, a designer of pilot schooners in New York, well known for their performance and speed.

Historical Timeline

  • August 2000

    • Charlie Sneed and Mark Bayne found South

Carolina Maritime Heritage Foundation

  • June 1, 2001

    • Spirit of South Carolina keel laid

  • 2003

    • Construction stalls due to lack of funding

  • January 2004

    • Brad and Meaghan Van Liew join South Carolina

Maritime Foundation

  • March 10, 2005

    • Construction on the Spirit of South Carolina resumes

  • April 14, 2005

    • Final live oak frame hoisted

  • September 28, 2005

    • Planking begins
  • Date to be determined
    • Initial Funding and undewriting dried up. Foundation must take out a loan for $2 million dollars to complete contruction.

  • July 15, 2006

    • Tony Arrow named Spirit of South Carolina’s first Captain

  • July 21, 2006

    • Whiskey Plank set

  • November 30, 2006

    • Sarah Piwinski named Education Director for South Carolina Maritime Foundation

  • March 4, 2007

    • Spirit of South Carolina christening and launching

  • April 27, 2007

    • Both the Main and Fore Masts stepped

  • May 20, 2007

    • Spirit of South Carolina sails for the first time during the Charleston Maritime Festival’s Parade of Sail

Sailing Spirit

Sailing Spirit of South Carolina

The First Four Years

During the first few years after launch, sailing under auspices of the South Carolina Maritime Foundation,  Spirit of South Carolina carried out a full schedule of educational programs for over two thousand young people of the Low Country. Under the supervision of Education Director Sarah Piwinski , Captains, Tony Arrow, and Ben Hall, and the support of large numbers of volunteers, the schooner ranged up and down the state's coast and beyond, to Bermuda, Bahama's, Washington DC, and New York.

Unfortunately, Spirit of South Carolina was already under a large debt when she was launched.  Though her educational programs were hugely successful, they generated insufficient revenue for anything more than paying operating expenses.  In 2012, the bank called the loan, and assumed control of the vessel for purpose of selling her at auction to recover the debt.  For the next two years she lay at anchor or at the dock, diligently cared for by a crew of volunteers. 

In July, 2015, the auction was held on her deck. Two Charleston businessmen, Tommy Baker, and Mikey Bennett concerned about the possibility of her being taken out of state, pooled resources and successfully bid for her at Auction

 After two years of neglect. Spirit of South Carolina was in poor condition to resume her mission without a major refit.  Again, her benefactors acquired additional funding that enabled her to be delivered by a delivery crew of pro's and volunteers, up to Newport Shipyard where she would spend the next  five months in total refit, to ready her for her next new life., 

Historical Timeline

2015 To present - to  be published.

  • August - December 2015

    • Spirit of South Carolina in drydock, the dockside for total refit, downrig and cleaning out, repainting and varnishing, some carpentry, spars removed and restored. ​

  • December 2015​

    • With Under Captain Kevin Wells, with crew of 14h professional and volunteers, Spirit of South Carolina sails home to Charleston.​

A Sailor's History of Charleston

By Blake C. Scott

All of Charleston’s past, its beauty and tragedy, touches the water. On carriage tours and in our
local schools, however, you might not always hear that history. More often we learn about the
city’s landscape - of grand houses, charming streets, and troubled plantations. We forget that it
was the waterways and their international connections that encouraged people to settle and live
in the Carolina Lowcountry.

There is a saying that goes, ‘it’s impossible not to love someone, once you’ve heard their story.’
But what if we told the history differently, 350 years after the founding of the city? What if we told a sailor’s history of Charleston?


Imagine a ship in motion with all of the sea characters of Charleston’s history aboard. As the Ashley River ebbs, your imagination turns not to the shore, but to the countless journeys of diverse people who rowed, sailed, and depended on this maritime system.


Since the city’s founding in 1670 the Ashley River has had at least three names. Its history is profoundly international. Before it was named for Anthony Ashley Cooper, the English Earl of Shaftsbury, it was known as the San Jorge River, part of the Spanish American Empire. Before that, it was the Kiawah River, part of a patchwork of tribal alliances and competitions among
indigenous Americans. Although the land supplied a bounty of buckskins, rice, indigo, and cotton, it was the proximity
to the ocean that mattered. Charleston was a key node in colonial trade networks, stretching from the islands of the Caribbean across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and West Africa. Soldiers of
fortune from across Europe fought each other, and native peoples for control of this edge of the Atlantic. For centuries it was a time of violence and war.
Among the English, state-sanctioned piracy became a form of guerrilla warfare against their neighbors. Charleston served as a waystation for these attacks. Some of the city’s most powerful
families gained their wealth not only in the slavery, but in piracy on the high seas. Famous pirate crews in the 1680s and 1690s included men with names like Fenwick and Pinckney.


However, when piracy (or privateering) was no longer needed to assure the English monarchy’s wealth in the Americas, pirates became unwelcome guests. In 1718, Edward Teach (Blackbeard) and his crew blockaded Charleston harbor, collected a ransom from the city, and sailed north before being captured by the authorities. Blackbeard died in the Outer Banks, while some of his pirate brethren, including Stede Bonnett, were transported to Charleston for trial. They were
hung at White Point Garden, and buried in the nearby marsh. The story of pirates in Charleston is rather well-known, but the meaning of this story is not always clear. Pirates were anarchists of
the sea, first recruited and then hunted down, for their disdain of colonial order.
Life on the water was also a source of freedom for those scorned and mistreated on land because of their race.

 

Shipping out, while risky, was one of the few options of escape for enslaved and
recently freed African Americans. Tens of thousands of black seamen sailed on warships, privateers, coastal traders, and diverse fishing vessels in the antebellum south. Yet when we learn of African American history, it’s as if the Middle Passage was the only sea story to be told.


Charleston was the largest slave port in North America; it’s estimated that something like 40 to 45% of all African Americans today can trace an ancestor to Charleston’s maritime slave trade.


We must remember that history, but what about what happened next? Denmark Vesey, a sailor-slave born in St. Thomas, arrived to Charleston with his captain and master after decades of sea travel, and imagined a revolution. His dreams and ideals were hatched among sailors circulating news from distant ports. When his revolution was thwarted in 1822, white Charlestonian’s passed the Negro Seamen’s act to cut-off the flow of ideas coming from Black Jacks (African American mariners).

 

Forty years later, when the Civil War began, African Americans again looked to the waterways for freedom. In May 1862, Robert Smalls, a slave mariner, commandeered the CSS Planter,
stealing it away from the confederacy and navigating to freedom with his family and friends.


Not even half the stories of black mariners have been told about the area’s waterways – from the days of Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River raid, into the 20th century history of
longshoremen and “mosquito fleet” fishermen. The new International African American Museum on the Cooper River looks to tell that more nuanced maritime history.


This of course is just a snapshot of the diversity and adventure that Charleston’s history holds when we think about the city from the water’s perspective. Next time you go boating or walk along the Battery, ask yourself - what stories and lessons might we find off-the-land? More importantly, when we come to recognize and appreciate the history of Charleston’s rivers, bays, and coasts, perhaps we will also learn to more deeply consider their importance for our future.

The history of Charleston’s waterways promises to do the same.

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