Published January 23. 2012 4:00AM Updated January 23. 2012 6:21PM
Mystic - A dozen years ago the recreation of the Amistad was launched at Mystic Seaport to great fanfare.
The schooner, which tells an inspiring story of freedom and interracial cooperation, made its official debut at OpSail 2000 in New York Harbor and then began annual tours of ports across the country, attracting large crowds wherever it went.
In the spring of 2010, its parent organization, New Haven-based Amistad America, took the schooner to Cuba, where the story of the original ship began in 1839.
Since then, it's been rough sailing.
During its transit back to Connecticut, the hardware attached to the bowsprit was damaged, requiring an estimated $100,000 in repairs. The damage caused the ship to lose its Coast Guard license to carry passengers and forced the cancellation of a lucrative fundraising trip to the Great Lakes. This came at a time when interest in the ship, coming off the Cuba visit, was at an all-time high.
Since then, the ship, which has received more than $6.4 million in state funding, has remained at Mystic Seaport, where it was built.
There were no trips last year as Amistad America tried to find the money to do the repairs and then restructured its $280,000 debt with TD Bank, which had filed a lien against the nonprofit organization.
"There were times last year when I was deeply concerned if we could get through the next two months," admitted Amistad America CEO Greg Belanger in an interview last week.
But Belanger said 2011 was a blessing in disguise for the organization, offering an opportunity to "rethink and retool" the programs and business plan to ensure the revenue needed to continue operating. He said visitors who came aboard the ship while it was docked at Mystic Seaport all year provided important feedback about its educational programs and marketing efforts.
Belanger said Amistad America has money left over from last year's budget that it can use to start this year's programs and remaining state bonding funds to pay for the repairs. He stressed, however, that the ship has to begin producing revenue this summer so operations can continue.
"We have the funding necessary to get the boat repaired and start our summer programs," he said. "We can't rely on the old forms of revenue, but we think we've come up with a formula.
"Will it be on a ongoing challenge? Of course. But we have a doable plan now," he added.
While there has been talk about groups interested in acquiring the ship, Belanger said he has never received an offer for it. Even if he had, he said, the ship is not for sale.
Mystic residents have always had a close connection with the ship as they watched it being built it in the Seaport shipyard and then pass through the drawbridge on its first sea trials. So when Amistad America decided to homeport the ship in New Haven, some here were not happy.
Winters in the Caribbean
The Amistad story began in 1839 when 53 Africans being transported along the coast of Cuba to begin a life of slavery took control of the ship, killing the captain and cook. The ship wandered up the East Coast before landing near Montauk on Long Island. They were captured there by the crew of a revenue cutter, brought to New London and then jailed in New Haven. Several trials followed.
With the aid of white abolitionists, the Africans won their freedom in 1841 when the U.S Supreme Court declared them free. The 35 Africans who survived returned to their homeland in 1842.
To keep telling that story, Belanger said, his organization decided it needed to have the boat earning revenue as many as 280 days a year, as opposed to the previous 160.
This means spending the winters in the Caribbean where Amistad can run educational programs and charge other organizations that want to use the boat. He said the fact that the boat has just eight passenger bunks hampers its revenue potential for overnight trips.
After the boat is repaired and passes its Coast Guard inspections, Belanger said, the plan is for the ship to spend the warm weather months operating between New Haven, New London and Mystic, running youth educational programs, day sails and short trips.
When the weather turns colder, Amistad will head south to its winter base in the Dominican Republic, where Belanger has secured a building to house its operations. Trips will be run through the winter to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
While Amistad America is securing grants to run some of its programs, Belanger said, the organization will also work closely with other organizations that have secured their own grants and then will pay for access to the boat and its educational programs.
Belanger said one program he is particularly excited about is funded by a U.S. State Department grant. Students from New Haven will be spending time in the Dominican Republic this winter learning about sustainable farming and other issues. This summer those students will work as peer instructors aboard Amistad as it operates in Long Island Sound. Next winter, a small group of them will work aboard the ship in the Caribbean.
Belanger said he is also working on getting permission for the ship to make return visits to Cuba.
Belanger said Amistad America used to be able to string together a trip to eight cities, each of which would pay $40,000 to $50,000 for the visit.
"But those days are gone. Cities don't have the discretionary income to have tall ships visits anymore. I can understand that. Do they want to pay their teachers or have a tall ship visit? So we can't depend on that model anymore," he said.
But Belanger said such occasional visits will continue to be a part of what Amistad does. He said he is negotiating with a southern city that would like Amistad to be part of a War of 1812 celebration this summer.
With the state of Connecticut facing large budget deficits, Belanger said Amistad America also can no longer depend on receiving any state funding.
"We have to learn to live without it. Our goal is to be self-sufficient," he said.