Sympathy for their plight

It would be wonderful if David Collins' smug, "I told you so" in Sunday's Day - "Amistad, Hewett and the best port" - was the last we heard from him about the Amistad. I've had enough of his wild surmises and unfounded accusations. Certainly, there is ample evidence that Amistad's finances have been mismanaged. But the audit is out and it shows that there is no evidence of misuse of funds, much less criminal wrongdoing as Collins has continuously insinuated.

I propose that there is a more compassionate narrative than the one Collins has chosen to pursue.

What might a compassionate reporter look for ? First, he might ask, "What happened to the Amistad's funding? She used to be able to file her tax returns."

According to Amistad's publicly available tax returns from 2001 to 2008 (a simple google search for "Amistad America 990" brings them up), Amistad America received funding from both the state and federal governments totaling about $1.1 million each year. For whatever reason, sometime after 2008, the feds stopped contributing. If the state was contributing $380,000 back then (the form does not break it down), then Amistad was suddenly short more than $700,000.

Suddenly, a thriving Amistad was operating on a little more than a third of the funding they had from the year before. No wonder they stopped filing their tax returns. They didn't have enough money to pay the accountants, or the crew, or the dock fees, or the lobbyists needed to go out and flog the state representatives into funding their state flagship adequately.

An enquiring reporter might then ask: "But, why can't Amistad operate on $400,000 a year? That's a lot of money!"

Look at the evidence. There are many other historic ships across the country, and many of them struggle to make ends meet, just like Amistad. The Pride of Baltimore, Maryland's flagship, is very similar to Amistad. She sails as an ambassador for Baltimore and Maryland. A quick look at her tax records shows that she costs about $1 million a year to operate, remarkably similar to what the Amistad was getting. Sadly, Maryland has been pulling funding and the Pride is struggling to find ways to keep sailing. If Pride is operating on a shoestring with a $1 million a year, is it reasonable to suppose that somehow Amistad can serve as Connecticut's ambassador on less than half that amount?

Given these facts, what is the compassionate narrative? Let us begin with an assumption that Amistad's staff and crew are well-meaning people doing their best to keep an important vessel sailing with barely enough money to scrape by - not deadbeats out to cheat the state. We could then tell a story of optimism and love for the ship triumphing over good sense, a story of people passionate to keep Amistad sailing against all odds. We could imagine the staff and crew thinking "Maybe if we keep her sailing, the funding will come back."

In hindsight, we might suggest that they would have been better off to tie the ship up and hire a lobbyist and a publicist to make their case, but they are hearty sailors, not fundraisers. They did their best, making do and scraping by on an inadequate state allocation and dribs and drabs of money earned through program fees. They did their best to do what they felt it was important to do, keep Amistad sailing.

Recent Day stories about Ocean Classroom and the schooner Virginia make it all too clear how difficult and expensive it is to keep a sailing ship operation afloat, figuratively and literally. Amistad's crew are heroes, not villains. Lets celebrate them, not castigate them.

The receivership is hardly cause for celebration. Any organization that takes on the care of Amistad will still need around $1 million annually to keep her sailing. Will the state step up to that responsibility? Unless they do, there is little chance of any organization being willing to take on Amistad's care and operation.

Amistad is a fine ship with a loyal and thick-skinned crew and supporters. She tells an amazing story and deserves more respect than she has been shown by The Day or by state officials. If our representatives are serious about wanting Amistad to be the state's ambassador, they need to step up and give her the funding she needs to fulfill her mission.

Guy Hermann founded and directs Museum Insights, a museum planning consulting firm. He previouosly worked at Mystic Seaport and led the building of the Seaport's "Exploring Amistad" web site. He lives in Mystic.


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