R.I. firms bring tall ship to life

SAIL MOVES: A reception onboard the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry in late September 2014. More than 58 companies to date have participated in the construction of the tall ship, which will begin its programs in the spring. / COURTESY MEDIA PRO INTERNATIONAL
SAIL MOVES: A reception onboard the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry in late September 2014. More than 58 companies to date have participated in the construction of the tall ship, which will begin its programs in the spring. / COURTESY MEDIA PRO INTERNATIONAL

How many hands did it take to build the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry, the first full-rigged, ocean-worthy tall ship to be built in the U.S. in a century?

The shipbuilding project has employed hundreds of people since the project began in 2007. More than 58 companies to date have provided parts, materials and services in the construction of the vessel, which will offer experience-based education when it launches this spring, according to Jess Wurzbacher, executive director for Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island.

The companies that had a role in her construction all performed specialized tasks, from the fabrication of the hull, decks and fuel tanks performed by employees of Senesco Marine in North Kingstown, to the design of the nameplate on the stern created by John “Fud” Benson of the John Stevens Shop in Newport.

Work is ongoing on the $15 million project. The ship is expected to be completed in the spring. Its first scheduled program will launch at the end of April, with a group of midshipmen from Naval Station Newport aboard.

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Wurzbacher’s nonprofit organization is continuing its capital campaign to complete the construction, but only $500,000 remains to be raised, she said. A November-to-December appeal, which raised money from donors willing to “purchase a plank” produced $200,000, she said.

The steel-hulled ship isn’t actually made of wooden “planks,” but donors came through to support the construction, she said. Support is also strong in Rhode Island’s maritime-trade community, she said.

The ship is a group effort, the product of thousands of hours of skilled labor, and has become a source of pride for many who worked on it. Years from now, she said, workers can point to it and say they helped to build it.

“This boat’s going to be around forever,” Wurzbacher said. “It will be a legacy for Rhode Island.”

The ship is now at the Hinckley Company boatyard in Portsmouth, where the final work is being done. Its three masts were stepped in September. When she is completed, the ship will be based at a $5 million dock at Fort Adams State Park in Newport that will be constructed by the state.

The tall ship may look like a throwback to another era, but when all is done, the Oliver Hazard Perry will function as a 21st-century classroom for education-at-sea programs. In addition to three decks and a modern galley, the Perry will have a science lab, modern navigation and communication systems, a “Great Cabin” for entertaining and classroom space with interactive SMART boards and laptops.

The construction has taken course over the past several years under a highly scheduled program, organized by Russell Bostock, the ship-construction superintendent.

The organization specifically tried to work with Rhode Island companies, Wurzbacher said. And for all but a few unique aspects of the ship’s construction, the work was completed in Rhode Island. One exception was the manufacture of the “spars,” the horizontal wooden poles mounted on the masts. The wood is made of Douglas fir, from Washington State, and was created there on the only lathe in the country large enough for the work.

One of the greatest challenges of building the ship has been the relative uniqueness of the project. The rigging, for example, couldn’t be farmed out to a contractor, Wurzbacher said. “No one has built a boat before like this in the United States.”

The J. Goodison Co., based in North Kingstown, was one of the major contractors. The company painted the entire ship, from hull to the base of the masts, and all of the interiors.

The work spanned more than two and a half years, according to General Manager Chris Braga.

“At any given time we had four guys to 12 guys working,” he said. The company started working on the boat when it was hauled to Senesco Marine, which did the bulk of the fabrication of the ship.

The work was different only in how many other contractors were working on the ship at the same time as the painters, Braga said. The production was highly scheduled, with painters working around welders and carpenters and other trades. “It’s not like we were able to get the boat and go through it at one time,” he said.

The ship began as a partial hull, purchased in Canada. The hull was towed to Rhode Island, along the New York canal system, by Newport-based Reagan Construction Corp.

When it arrived at Senesco, the hull had one coat of paint. J. Goodison pressure-washed it, then applied the primer and the red color the OHP team had selected. “It is amazing,” Braga said, of its current appearance. “From the days when it first got here, when they hauled it down from Canada, it’s been quite a project.”

Hood Sailmakers, based in Middletown, provided 20 sails for the ship, a production that took several years. The organizational work with the nonprofit started in 2011, estimated Tom Braisted, a service manager and sale consultant for the company.

“It’s not something we do every day,” Braisted said. “Twenty for one ship, for one vessel, 20 sails is a big project. We’ve been knocking them out as we go.”

The ship has three masts, which support the triangular sails and square sails. The largest sail was 360 pounds; the smaller ones about 150 pounds each, he estimated.

The ship will have engines, of course, but it’s designed to move by wind. If the people on deck work in coordination, with the right wind, the ship will move as she should, Braisted said.

“The goal is to make the Oliver Hazard Perry the flagship for Rhode Island,” she said. “And showcase the marine trade skills we have in the state.”

All but the rigging was contracted out to companies. For the rigging, the network of ropes, lines and masts that support the sails, the nonprofit hired a group of specialized “riggers.” •