Amistad sets sail again

New London — About 40 people gathered Monday to celebrate the arrival of Amistad, a long-awaited sail since the ship began undergoing extensive renovations in November.

"We teach the Amistad story every day, all year around," said Susan Tamulevich, executive director of the New London Maritime Society. "It's great to have something tangible, a ship that stayed here in New London."

The ship left Mystic Seaport Monday morning after about two dozen shipyard workers met for an 8 a.m. ceremony.

“This is an unbelievable ship when you look at it,” said Len Miller, board chairman of Discovering Amistad, the organization that owns the ship.

Amistad will dock in New London through the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival Sept. 9-11. It will also make visits to New Haven and Bridgeport before returning to winter at Mystic Seaport.

New London plays an important role in the institution's mission and has been chosen as one of the cities where the educational program about the ship will be piloted at no cost, Miller said.  

The orginal Amistad was transporting 53 Africans sold into slavery along the Cuban coast in 1839 when they commandeered the ship and sailed it up the East Coast. The ship was captured in Montauk, N.Y., and brought to New London, and the captives taken to New Haven. They were held for trial but eventually set free.

“She’s very faithful to her historical period,” said Capt. Tucker Yaro. “All the lines need to be hauled by hand.”

Yet the ship is not exactly a replica, he said. There were no original plans when the ship was constructed at Mystic Seaport, only paintings and descriptions. The schooner, 81 feet long on deck, was built “in the spirit of the Amistad,” but in the type and style of a Baltimore Clipper so “she’s a balance of modern convenience, ocean-going capability and faithful visually to the history of the story,” Yaro said.

School groups are signing up to visit the ship this fall, and the Discovering Amistad organization plans to establish a “Freedom Institute” to teach additional educational programs beginning in January or February.

“It gives us, I think, a good platform to be thinking about what’s going on in the country today,” Miller said. “To talk about race relations, social justice, empowerment of people and equality of people.”

The ship suffered neglect under its prior caretaker and needed extensive work, including replacement of its diesel engines. Work is not yet finished but is estimated to cost $500,000, Miller said.

The state audited Amistad America and took control of the schooner in August 2014 after questions about how the organization had spent $9 million in state funding. The ship was later sold by a court-appointed receiver to Discovering Amistad for $315,000.

“It was a heartbreak to see her come in the way she was,” said longtime shipyard director Quentin Snediker.

But he felt a sense of fulfillment on Monday.

“Everything is clean and crisp and sharp, the way it should be,” he said.

“It’s been a journey, for sure, for everybody involved with Amistad, starting back when her keel was first laid here at Mystic Seaport,” said Stephen White, president of the Seaport. “But it’s a journey that, while difficult at times, has been one worth taking and one worth completing, and we’re proud to be part of that second chapter of her life.”

New London Mayor Michael Passero said he shares the Maritime Museum's dream of having the ship become more of a presence in the city because of its importance to New London's history and culture. "We are rightly proud of the role our city played in this great story of freedom," he said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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