Five Questions With: Bart Dunbar

With legislation designating the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry as Rhode Island’s official sailing education vessel pending passage in the House of Representatives – with the Senate’s backing – the nonprofit group dedicated to restoring the ship, Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island, is on the verge of realizing a dream spun over a decade ago.

As of January, OHPRI, headquartered in Newport, had raised nearly $5 million of the $7.4 million it says is necessary to help it set sail in July 2013 and provide the state’s youth with sea education while at sea.

Bart Dunbar, chair of OHPRI’s board of directors, who has been involved with the organization its entire 15 years, spoke to PBN about the endeavor.

PBN: You were one of the founding forces behind organizing OHPRI as a way to bring tall ships to Narragansett Bay. When and why did reviving the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry become a focus of our mission?
During the tall ship visits of 1992, 2000, and 2007 that we organized, we always included a group of Rhode Island school kids on the visiting sail training vessels. It seemed crazy that Rhode Island, home to Tall Ships America, did not have a sailing school ship. After the 2000 visit we decided we should focus on obtaining [one]. Since purchasing [The SSV Oliver Perry in 2007], we’ve had the ability to construct her, practically from the very start, specifically as a school ship. The [ship] will be able to accommodate up to 34 students.

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PBN: What challenges do you face, in a struggling economy, with your fundraising?
We faced the unexpected challenge of the economic situation in 2008 but with a lot of local hands and support and a strong message about what the sail training experience can do for Rhode Island students and schools, we have been successful in raising a lot of support and money. This gives us a lot of momentum as we come out of this financial mess. The challenge remains to raise the remaining $2.5 million by 2013.

PBN: What educational, social, and personal development benefits are there to teaching children about ships and the sea?
[While] we don’t teaching sailing on the OHP, we offer kids and adults a life-changing, skills-defining experience of team work, problem solving, and dealing with an unfamiliar environment. It is well established worldwide that this experience can be character building for many.

PBN: Having the ship hopefully being the official sailing education vessel soon, you and the rest of the board must feel a great sense of accomplishment. To what can you attribute this success?
I think a lot [of it] comes from the breadth of our vision. Oliver Hazard Perry is a large ship and this is a large project but Rhode Islanders get it. We can a very positive effect here. Rhode Island needs a symbol of her glorious past and more importantly her future.

PBN: Why do you personally believe so deeply in this cause?
I grew up with this type of experience [and] I’ve experienced what being at sea can do for a young person. I taught steamship and sail training at the U.S. Naval Academy and was one of the incorporators of Barclay Warburton’s American Sail Training Association, now Tall Ships America. I believe, personally, that the program will partner with Rhode Island schools, universities and other marine trades and accomplish great things.