Her Name is Ernestina-Morrissey and Her Legacy is Resilience

March 27th, 2024

“One Ship, Many Lives”

Of all the successful Bristol Marine restoration projects that tell the tale of America’s heritage, perhaps none does it with more resonance than the schooner Ernestina-Morrissey.

Ernestina boat builders

Beyond the rebuild — a nearly eight-year-long undertaking that resulted in a new hull, deck, fittings and sails, and which cost millions obtained through donations, gifts, fundraising and grants — lies a mission of multi-faceted proportions that entered a new phase when the schooner slid down the railway at The Shipyard in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in August 2022.

Ernestina Morrissey 1894

It’s rare when an 1894 schooner, the workhorse of commerce for an emerging nation, survives. Yet that, remarkably, is exactly what the Ernestina has done, long after moving cargo and crew to the Grand Banks, Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland in search of cod, haddock, hake, halibut, and pollock.

Among many exploits, the National Historic Landmark and official vessel of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts voyaged within 600 miles of the North Pole on research expeditions, conducted hydrographic surveys and other services for the U.S. government during World War II, and transported Cape Verdean immigrants transatlantic to new beginnings in the U.S.

As she continues to forge ahead on a far-ranging odyssey that has repeatedly defied hefty odds, mishaps and occasional neglect since it began more than a century ago, she remains as celebrated as she is beloved. Armchair sailors can while away the days imagining what it would have been like to be aboard Ernestina during one of her many roles in Phoenix of the Seas by Chester Brigham, published in 2015.

With yard’s work complete, the schooner’s latest course correction, with Tiffany Krihwan as its first female captain, is as a sail-training platform for the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. “One Ship, Many Lives,” states the schooner’s official banner — a modest flourish for the impact the Ernestina continues to have on countless souls.

A Commitment to Tradition & Excellence

Beyond a vital role ensuring future generations will acquire skills in seamanship, teamwork and leadership is the object lesson that Ernestina and other historic wooden vessels of her ilk serve up about the need to maintain the facilities and traditional boatbuilding skills that underpin these restorations.

Bristol Marine in Boothbay Harbor, Maine

“The aesthetic of this place matches the work, and the work matches the aesthetic, because this type of work has been happening here for hundreds of years, in this very location, since 1869,” says Dennis Gunderson, Boothbay general manager. “Large schooners just like Ernestina hauled out on our railway, which is in the exact same spot it was in in 1869, when these boats were the workhorses of the ocean.”

The covered, 700-ton railway became the temporary, year-round home to the 156-foot vessel.

“When the boat arrived here, it was essentially a hulk,” Gunderson says. “She was hogged (bent convex), the masts had ugly checks (splits from drying) in them, and she was taking on reasonable amounts of water regularly. She had no semblance of her original shape or sheer line. The hull structure had deteriorated significantly over 20 years, and our project involved assembly of pretty much every component of the ship.”

ernestina historic boat

Other vessels that have found new life in Boothbay include the 1921 schooner Bowdoin, 1913 Katahdin, 1998 Friendship of Salem, and the 1963 Bluenose II. These too illustrate how the yard’s workforce preserves and unites centuries-old craft with modern practices while meeting contemporary requirements and regulations. Theirs is a dedication to authenticity and excellent craftsmanship customized to each unique challenge. It’s a sensibility that pays homage to Down East pride of place, where skills are passed from one generation to the next.

Ernestina Morrissey restoration

“People have given years of their lives to work on this vessel,” Gunderson says. “We had employees happy to leave their homes at 6 a.m. and drive an hour and a half each way in February to work on this project, in this location. It wasn’t too many generations ago that somebody’s grandfather was building a giant schooner here and it was considered a regular boat, nothing special. It’s part of the fabric of this place to do that kind of work, and the people who live here make up that fabric. Bristol Marine is great because it wants that tradition and culture kept alive here.” Bristol Marine acquired the Boothbay yard in 2018.

Aside from administrative workers, the facility’s fulltime employees, a staff of about 15, includes shipwrights experienced in 17th to 20th century wood construction techniques; naval architects and engineers trained in computer aided design; system technicians knowledgeable in diesel engine and electrical systems; painting and finishing technicians; and specialists in state, federal and private project management and requirements.

Ernestina Morrissey restoration

Lead shipwright David Short, whose career spans 40 years, led the relofting, which involves creation of full-scale ship drawings, the dimensions of which were used to generate U.S. Coast Guard drawings of the correct hull shape. “A lot of knowledge goes into that work, which is very specialized,” Gunderson says.

The Boothbay facility is also long known for fostering relationships beyond the yard. It maintains ties to subcontractors with specialized skills and access to materials. “We have an individual who lives and works in Newcastle, 20 minutes up the road, who owns a forge and fabricated period correct hardware for EM’s mast and rigging,” Gunderson says. “You don’t need to explain too much about the drawings you hand over to him because he understands the work and knows what he’s doing.”

Boothbay’s embrace of contemporary practices made it possible for Gunderson to reach out to colleague Andrew J. Williams of Newport, Rhode Island.

“His advanced camera equipment made it possible for him to measure the entire vessel with a high degree of accuracy,” Gunderson says. “For example, it allowed us to build the engine room before anything got installed: We were able to figure out where the engine was going to go, where the generators were going to go, the fuel tanks, bilge plumbing, fire pumps, batteries, all were fit into the engine room in advance, to within millimeters of accuracy. This is where technology is incredibly useful.”

Lumber for the project included 200-year-old Royal Oak from Denmark and domestically sourced Southern Live Oak and White Oak. “We know where to go to get access to that type of wood, which other companies may not know,” Gunderson adds. The lumber was stored at the yard’s spacious lot and processed with two 36-inch ship saws and other large woodworking equipment, including planers and table saws.

Ernestina is now a new boat, down to the keel. Half of the schooner’s 100,000 pounds of internal ballast in lead pigs throughout the bilges was repoured and fixed to the bottom of hull in a traditional external lead keel.

ernestina historic boat restoratioin

Is she still the Ernestina?

“In our opinion, she is,” Gunderson says. “The boat arrived, we hauled it out of the water on that railway, it never left that spot, and it was put back together. It’s like the Greek tale of the “Ship of Theseus,” which was replaced bit by bit. People have asked that question for centuries.

“Having Ernestina move on to an entity like Mass Maritime is very exciting for us,” he adds. “We’re so pleased to know that the boat continues in an educational capacity. Hopefully people will recognize that the work was done here. There aren’t many shipyards like us still out there around the world. But we’re still here and doing it and the information and skills it takes to do that still exist and you can still deliver a good product.”