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Amistad will spend summer docked in New London

New London — The Amistad will be docked this summer at the Custom House Pier in New London, where it will be on hand for maritime festivals and participate in educational programs, under a plan proposed by the schooner's court-appointed receiver and approved by a Superior Court judge.

The arrangement would be in stark contrast to what occurred last summer, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy urged the ship's financially troubled owner, Amistad America, to get the ship to New London for Sailfest or face the loss of $400,000 in annual state funding. The ship arrived in time for the festival after originally saying it was canceling its visit, in part because of The Day's coverage of how the organization has spent more than $8 million in state funding.

This summer's plans for the ship are contained in a report prepared for the court by receiver Katharine Sacks. She reported that the ship's four-person crew has spent the winter at Mystic Seaport addressing a host of necessary and labor-intensive projects such as servicing the rigging and sails, resealing deck seams and repairing toilets, the generator and main engine bilge.

The receiver's contract for dockage at the Seaport, which is still owed $45,000 by Amistad America, expires at the end of April. Sacks wrote that because of limited finances, it would have been natural for the ship to return to its homeport of New Haven, which does not charge docking fees. But its slip at Long Wharf Pier has silted in, and the ship sits in the mud at low tide, exposing it to damage. While New Haven has hired a consultant to study the need for dredging, it still has to find funding for the work before it can hire a contractor. Sacks said the process will take at least six months.

This forced her to seek alternative dockage.

"Fortunately for Amistad and the receiver, the City of New London has offered (complimentary) dockage at the Custom House Pier in its harbor, in exchange for the ship's presence at key maritime festivals during the upcoming 'Connecticut Coast Guard Summer' celebrating the 225th anniversary of the United States Coast Guard," Sacks wrote in her report.

It was behind the Custom House that the original Amistad docked in 1839 after its 53 African slaves were captured off Long Island. Their cause was supported by New London abolitionists, and they were eventually declared free by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sacks and the city have agreed to a memorandum of understanding that was approved by a judge two weeks ago.

She said the city understands that the ship will not be operating a sailing schedule this season because it does not have the funding to hire a full crew and has capital needs that may be difficult to meet this year.

But she said the ship should be able to offer on-deck and dockside educational programs, possibly in cooperation with the New London Maritime Society and the Custom House Maritime Museum.

Sacks wrote that the agreement with New London "is in the Amistad's best interests, and will offer the safest and most appropriate dockage and activity plan for the ship for the 2015 season."

The city will offer the ship free dockage from late April to November and "has further offered to consider hosting the S/V Amistad for a longer duration, if necessary and desirable," according to the agreement.

There are eight festivals in New London and Groton, including Sailfest, that the ship is expected to attend, and the city can amend the list.

The memorandum of understanding states that Sacks has explained to the city that she hopes the ship will be transferred out of receivership to a new nonprofit entity sometime after June, and while she cannot make a binding commitment for that entity, she is willing to make a good-faith effort to have the ship at the festivals. The first festival is the In Water Boat Show on June 20-21.

In her latest report to the court, Sacks said she has established an advisory committee to help her come up with models for a successor organization to Amistad America. The group met for the first time on Feb. 18.

She also wrote in her report that no one from the state legislature has contacted her about two proposed bills concerning the management and operation of the ship. While she wrote she is happy to see evidence of public interest in the ship, it will be up to the court to authorize transfer of the ship to a new operator.

A group of nine Democratic legislators from the New Haven area have introduced a bill that would have the state Department of Transportation become responsible for the operation and maintenance of the ship. Little is known about the details or cost of the plan as just one of the nine has responded to phone calls and emails from The Day seeking more information. That legislator, state Rep. Patricia Dillon, said she did not know much about the bill but had signed on to it "as a courtesy" because it is part of package of legislation being introduced by the New Haven delegation.

Meanwhile state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, has introduced a bill with state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, that would require the Amistad to be subject to Results Based Accountability standards. RBA is a method of budgeting championed by Urban with some success on the state level in which an agency has to provide data that proves a program is successful in order to receive state funding. The bill is being co-sponsored by state Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, R-Groton.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Twitter: @joewojtas

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