Charting a Lofty Course

Maritime Foundation Hopes to Build Tall Ship for D.C.

Posted April 29, 2005 at 3:17pm

Even before he became executive director of the National Maritime Heritage Foundation seven months ago, Kevin Traver felt that Washingtonians have become disconnected from D.C.’s historic waterways, but sometimes he can still be surprised at how deep that lack of understanding goes.

At a recent educational day for the foundation’s high school sailing program, one wary student pulled his instructor aside to ask whether it was true that sharks and stingrays lurked beneath the Anacostia River’s murky surface.

“He was dead serious,” Traver said. Most District residents “see this river as an obstacle, that’s all it is to them.”

But Traver, a former U.S. Marine whose family has owned a boat yard in New London, Conn., for 150 years, is determined to change the way Washingtonians think about their rivers, and he’s going to do it by building a ship. A really big ship.

Since the NMHF was founded in April 2000, its main focus has always been to build a tall ship for Washington, D.C. Like the USS Constellation docked in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or the Amistad in Mystic, Conn., this tall ship would serve as an educational platform and maritime ambassador for the city as well as an economic engine on the District’s waterfront. The 140-foot schooner that Traver hopes to construct and dock along

the Anacostia River would also help promote the foundation’s three community sailing programs — the only public learn-to-sail programs in Washington — as well as raise money for an eventual Washington Maritime Center on the waterfront, a 120,000-square-foot facility that Traver hopes would become a national center for tall ships from across the country.

This year, Traver, who worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and as a campaign staffer for Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) before moving over to the foundation full time last fall, is looking to Capitol Hill for help in his mission to reconnect the city to its waterways in the form of two appropriations requests and one spending authorization.

One appropriations request, sponsored by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and California Rep. Duke Cunningham (R), who previously chaired what was then known as the Appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia, is for $2.5 million to fund land acquisition along the Anacostia and to begin the process of building the tall ship. Another request, sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), is for half a million dollars to expand the foundation’s community sailing programs.

“Everything is pretty up in the air at this point and the budget is surrounded by spending restraints, so we can’t gauge what’s going to happen with this request right now,” said Mark Olsen, Cunningham’s press secretary. But Olsen added that Cunningham believes District residents need to reconnect with the river if waterfront revitalization efforts, like the city’s Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, are going to succeed.

Cunningham “has always been a big supporter of revitalization along the waterfront dating back to his days working on D.C. appropriations issues, and being in the Navy for 20 years he’s always had a passion for maritime issues,” Olsen said.

According to studies by Traver’s group, a tall ship, at a cost of about $6.5 million, would bring an estimated $97 million to the District economy over a 10-year period.

“Those numbers impress me,” said former City Council Member Harold Brazil (D), one of several local leaders that Traver has added to the NMHF’s Board of Directors since taking over.

“The waterfront, from an economic standpoint, is a goldmine … and we’ve underutilized it,” said Brazil, who worked closely with the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative until he lost his At-Large seat to Council Member Kwame Brown (D) last fall. “The economic benefits are going to be great, and the cultural and educational benefits will be immense as well. … It means jobs and revenue for the district.”

“It’s an effective model,” Traver explained of other cities with tall ships. “D.C. is the only major East Coast port without one.”

Traver hopes to lay the keel for D.C.’s tall ship by fall 2006, and the NMHF has already picked a name for the vessel. She will be called “The Spirit of Enterprize.”

Enterprize will be a replica of the famed schooner that was commissioned by George Washington in 1799. Authorized by Congress in 1794 and built to protect American merchant vessels from French privateers, the Enterprize gained notoriety in the early 1800s while under the command of Washingtonian Stephen Decatur in actions against the Barbary Pirates of North Africa. After earning the nickname “the lucky little Enterprize,” the fast 24-gun ship returned to the United States in 1806 and was homeported in Washington.

Enterprize, whose name would be passed down to several famous American warships through the years, remained in the District until just before the War of 1812, when she was refitted at the Washington Navy Yard and sent out to fight against the British. She was eventually stationed in Charleston, S.C., and served faithfully until she went down in the Caribbean in 1824 after hitting a reef off Curaçao.

Building the Enterprize will probably take about four years, Traver said, and would happen at the same time that the city will be building its new baseball stadium in Southeast and beginning renovations to the South Capitol Street Corridor.

Traver said the foundation plans to use local volunteers to build much of the ship as a “community building project.” He hopes the sight of the massive project rising along the river will also get people excited to learn more about the history of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and get out on the water.

“This will be a great community outreach effort” where volunteers can come to the waterfront and be guided by trained shipbuilders for a few hours during an afternoon or weekend, he said. “Kids will see this for the next 60 to 100 years on the waterfront, and they can look back and say, ‘I put a nail in that.’”