2018-09-13 / News

Financial woes to keep SSV Perry tied to dock

The SSV Oliver Hazard Perry, the official tall ship of Rhode Island, will remain in Narragansett Bay while management rethinks the financial sustainability of the program.

“We were not able to sell enough programs to make traveling south a financial reality,” said Whip Seaman, a member of the nonprofit organization’s executive committee. “We felt it was prudent to take some time operationally and organizationally to decide what the best use of the ship is moving forward.”

The 200-foot ship, which is nearly 14 stories tall, took seven years and $12 million to build. It has three masts, 7 miles of rigging and 14,000 square feet of sail. It is the largest civilian sailing school vessel in the United States, and the first full-rigged ship to be constructed in the United States in more than a century.

“The ship is in great shape, so this is the time to step back and figure out how we go forward,” said co-founder Bart Dunbar, chairman of the board.

The Perry, which made its maiden voyage in 2015, sailed to the Caribbean during the springs of 2017 and ’18. The cruise planned for 2019, however, has been canceled. September’s scheduled trip to Boston and day sails during the Newport International Boat Show also have been scrapped.

Since launching the program, more than 1,000 students have sailed from Canada to Cuba studying marine stewardship aboard the Perry.

In April, the boat participated in the Tall Ships America showcase on the Gulf Coast, with stops in Pensacola, Galveston and New Orleans; more than 40,000 visitors toured the vessel. With 10,000 nautical miles under its keel, the ship has performed extremely well in diverse weather conditions, Seaman said, and passed its latest Coast Guard inspection “with flying colors.”

Despite the ship’s healthy condition, the coffers of the nonprofit organization, Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island, have been challenged. It will maintain an office in Newport with minimal staff and crew. The board fired the ship’s eight employees Sept. 4, including Garboard Street’s Jess Wurzbacher, the executive director.

“Tough decisions had to be made during this transitional period,” Seaman said. “Laying off the staff and crew was the toughest. These dedicated people contributed so much to our success.”

“It’s a bit of a shock still,” Wurzbacher said two days after hearing the news.

Along with soliciting corporate partnerships, Seaman said the board is considering selling the ship to an educational institution. A meeting with Gov. Gina Raimondo is scheduled.

“We have built an amazing ship,” Dunbar said. “We have established proof of concept. Now it is time to figure out how to build on that.”

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