The day was clear, the wind fair from the south. Under atowering cloud of sail, the old ship might well have been reaching for ports withmusical names - Mandalay, Shanghai, the Marquesas, Bora Bora. We could have been the Pride of Baltimore bound for China, HMS Victory under the flag of Horatio Nelson, the Bounty with Captain Bligh on the quarterdeck, or aboard Pequod as Captain Ahab raged at the great white whale. We could have been sailing with Joseph Conrad or Melville or Jack London into the world’s imagination. After all, we are aboard the three-masted barque Elissa, survivor of the Great Age of Sail, and after 147 years still sailing the seas.
Elissa was built in Aberdeen Scotland and launched in 1877. For decades, she wandered the world carrying cargoes of lumber, wool, hard goods and coal. In 1883, she even delivered a cargo of bananas to the port of Galveston. But as the years went by, commerce at sea turned more and more to engine-powered vessels. In 1918, her first engine was installed, and over time, she was stripped of her sailing gear, became little more than a tramp steamer. In 1959, she was sold to Greece and she sailed for several years under the names of Achaeos and Christophoros and Pioneer. One of her last voyages under the Greek flag was to smuggle cigarettes. In 1970, it was decided that her time had passed and she was taken to a salvage yard in Piraeus to await the ship breakers. It was there she was discovered by marine archaeologists and restoration professionals who recognized her historical significance. In 1975, she was purchased by the Galveston Historical Society for $40,000.
It took a year in Greece to make the tired old hull seaworthy again. Elissa was then towed to Gibraltar, then towed across the Atlantic to the Texas Seaport Museum on Galveston Island. It was then the real work of restoration began.
After years of work by historians, shipwrights, carpenters, sailing enthusiasts, and hundreds of volunteers, the derelict old steamer again became the proud tall sailing ship she had been when she was launched so many years ago. Whenever possible, the original features were retained. Yet, new Douglas fir masts and spars, gleaming new teak bright work on rails and hatches, a new teak deck, and all new rigging and sails were added. When the restoration was completed, I was invited by the Galveston Historical Society to sail on Elissa’s sea trial.
Now, we fly along at ten knots, on a beam reach, all sail aloft, and I can feel the power of that quarter-acre expanse of sail. It is a power that moves us through the sea, but also through time, back to the time Joseph Conrad and Melville knew. As we moved through the sunlit sea that day, I wondered if perhaps, the Great Age of Sail might be in our future, as well as our past. As we respond to climate change, forgo dependence on fossil fuels, and embrace the sun and the wind as our primary sources of power on land, maybe we will do the same on the sea. Maybe Elissa is not a reflection of the past, but a foreshadowing of something to come.
Marshall Riggan has been telling and writing stories for more than half a century, many of which have been made into movies and television productions. Much of his writing is about sailing and the sea. His books Sulu Sea and The Last Traveler can be found at https://www.marshallrigganstoryteller.com