With her twin, slanted masts, the 120-foot schooner Amistad, a replica of a famed 19th century ship, rose from Port Jefferson Harbor like a ghost of history the weekend of July 19.
It’s a ghost that has haunted Port Jeff in the past, as local historians and sailing enthusiasts try to bring a tall ship into harbor.
“This harbor was filled with schooners back in the 1800s. We would love to bring those masts back [to Port Jefferson],” said Chris Ryon, Port Jefferson village historian. “We found out they [Amistad] were in Greenport and they were like ‘Can we stop by?’ and we said sure.”
Ryon and other schooner enthusiasts have been trying to bring a tall ship back to Port Jeff Harbor for quite some time. Together they set up the Port Jeff Tall Ship Committee, a subset of the Port Jefferson Harbor Education & Arts Conservancy as well as creating the Port Jeff Maritime Facebook page in an effort to advertise for interested tall ships.
One of those interested tall ships was the Amistad, which briefly made an appearance this past weekend at the village dock. The ship is a re-creation of the famed African slave ship where Mende captives from Sierra Leone rebelled against their captors and took control of the ship in 1839. Unable to navigate back to Africa, the ship was towed into port in New London Harbor, Connecticut. The captives were faced with execution or slavery, but their case for freedom was supported by many throughout the state. The U.S. Circuit and District courts ruled in the Mende’s favor, and the Mende would eventually gain their freedom with a final decision by the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the lower court’s decision in 1841. Georgette Grier-Key, Long Island history initiative director at Nassau Community College, had the chance to tour the Amistad, where she also showed the ship’s crew historical memorabilia from that time. She said tall ships are something the greater Port Jeff community could really benefit from.
“It would be great to have that history there, they [schooners] are so beautiful to see in the harbor,” she said. “The Amistad has a great legacy and it is critically important to tell the story. I really hope they can get a ship there.”
The crew of the Amistad was impressed with what Port Jeff had to offer.
“This is a beautiful waterfront. There’s no question in my mind that you guys need an attraction vessel. This town needs it,” said Chris Stirling, captain of the Amistad.
During the summer, the Amistad goes from port to port providing dockside programs where they show patrons the ship and tell them the history behind the vessel. In the evening, the New Haven-based ship does a sunset sail where they take people out on the water to watch the sunset.
Ryon said they’re continuing the quest to get tall ships in the harbor and the Amistad could potentially be one of those ships.
“The owner is up in Connecticut — we have been talking. She seems very interested,” the village historian said.
Stirling said when traditional boats come into port it is an attraction.
“Everybody gets jazzed; they love it,” he said.
The captain of the Amistad said he thinks a boat like theirs can come to Port Jeff and do stuff periodically but mentioned the need for the village to have a flagship vessel.
Back in March, the village had announced negotiations with the Halie & Matthew, a 118-foot-long schooner originally set to dock in Port Jefferson Harbor. But village officials said negotiations fell through when the schooner company, Maine Windjammers Inc., wanted to work the vessel partly as a restaurant, operating outside the normal hours of the pier.
“When the Halie and Matthew deal fell through, we said ‘Let’s not sit here with an egg on our face and let’s try to get someone in here,’” Ryon said.
Ryon said they have been reaching out to the schooner community for a while now and have made it known they are interested in getting a ship in the harbor and are offering a free dock.
“We’re working on it; there are no promises on anything,” he said. “It’s fine on our side. It’s a big boat, that’s the issue — it’s really up to them.”
The village historian mentioned that ideally a ship around 70 feet would be a good size for the dock. Ryon said it may be a little tight for the Amistad to maneuver as it is a 120-foot ship and the water is a little shallower.
There are plans to use committee member Jason Rose’s own still-to-be-reconstructed schooner, Elizabeth, as a placeholder at
Rose said he hopes to be able to take the Elizabeth out in the water in the next couple of weeks.
“It would be great to have another schooner join the Elizabeth here,” he said.