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Mystic Seaport looks to convert steamboat Sabino to electric power

Mystic — One of Mystic Seaport Museum’s most well-known vessels may soon become a water version of a Toyota Prius.

The museum has announced plans to its donors to install an electric propulsion system in the steamboat Sabino, whose coal-fired engine is now used to take visitors up and down the Mystic River during warm-weather months.

While the steam engine will remain operational and be used on occasion, Chris Gasiorek, the museum’s vice president of watercraft preservation and programs, said most of the trips would be powered by electric batteries.

He said the electric power would allow more visitors to have the “magical experience” of riding aboard a historic steamboat.

He said it is neither feasible nor sustainable at this point to continue using coal to make three trips a day, three to four days a week, as the boat uses a ton of coal per day, which sends smoke and soot into the air.

In addition, he said, it has become increasingly difficult to get engineers with the required Coast Guard certification to run the boat. He said using electric power would allow the Sabino to operate seven days a week without the need for a licensed engineer.

Gasiorek said the museum is in the initial planning stages of the project and is working with the Coast Guard and the National Park Service. He said there is no cost estimate yet for the work but said the museum will be asking donors to help fund the work.

Gasiorek said the installation of electric propulsion would not change the historical integrity of the boat, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark. He said the weight of the batteries will replace the weight of the coal, and the motor will fit over the drive shaft. He added that any part of the electric propulsion could be removed if needed.

In a letter this month to museum donors, Director of Development and Legacy Giving Chris Freeman wrote, “adding electric propulsion will make crewing the vessel easier, it will also enable us to increase her total operational hours with passengers aboard and we will be operating in a more environmentally benign fashion. This will improve the economic model for Sabino and allow us to get more people out on the river while retaining the charm and tranquility of her nearly silent operation.”

He added that the museum is also hearing concerns from residents about the smoke and soot the Sabino generates.

In 2017, the museum completed a 2½-year-long, $1 million restoration of the Sabino, which has the distinction of being the oldest coal-fired steamboat in regular operation in the United States. That work included the fabrication and installation of a new boiler.

Gasiorek said the conversion to electric propulsion would not have been able to be undertaken if the previous project had not been done.

The 111-year-old ship, which can carry up to 74 passengers, has been a familiar sight on the river for decades and at one time featured a Dixieland band.

The 57-foot-long Sabino was built in 1908 in East Boothbay, Maine, and spent most of its career ferrying passengers and cargo between Maine towns and islands. Its engine, which is powered by a coal-fired boiler, was built by the J.H. Paine & Son Co. of Noank. The boat came to the Seaport in 1973 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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