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LI Maritime Museum's sloop Priscilla ready for public

The Long Island Maritime Museums restoration of historic

The Long Island Maritime Museums restoration of historic 122-year-old oyster sloop, Priscilla, goes for her first sail on the Great South Bay. (May 11, 2010) Credit: Photo by KEVIN P. COUGHLIN

After steering Priscilla out onto the Great South Bay under diesel power, Captain Michael Caldwell pointed the historic oyster sloop into the wind and began issuing commands.

"Prepare to haul," he told the crew of Long Island Maritime Museum staffers and volunteers. "Haul away!"

After the large mainsail was raised, followed by the jib, Caldwell turned the boat parallel to shore. The sails filled, and he shut off the engine. "Thank God," he said as the mechanical drone was replaced by the sound of water gurgling along the hull.

"It's a marvelous boat," Caldwell said as the 15-mph wind pushed Priscilla at more than 7 mph. "She sails well."

Starting next weekend, the public will get to see that for itself.

The 122-year-old Priscilla, the oldest survivor of a fleet of South Shore oyster dredging sloops that once numbered about 500, has sailed only a few times since a restoration in 2002 and 2003. And then with only a museum crew.

After following up the reconstruction with several years of work on rigging and sails and a Coast Guard inspection that led to 3,000 pounds of lead ballast being added for added stability, the West Sayville museum obtained approval to carry paying passengers. The first opportunity will be at next weekend's Nautical Festival.

"Priscilla will serve as the floating ambassador for the museum," said director Natasha Alexenko.

Public sails on the 60-foot sloop will cost up to $25 per person and groups can charter it for $750 a day. "The money that's earned will be turned right back into the maintenance of the vessel," Caldwell said. "It has to be an ongoing process."

Eventually that work will be done at a new repair facility to be built starting next year with a $630,000 federal grant. "It will give us an opportunity to haul a lot of our historic vessels like Priscilla out and do a lot of maintenance and give people an opportunity to watch the process," Alexenko said.

A $400,000 state grant paid for Priscilla's restoration. The museum hired shipwright Joshua Herman, who trained volunteers to help. "There's very little of the original boat left," board vice chairman Betty Arink said. Only some of the keel remained, along with a few deck fittings including the anchor winch and some cleats.

Priscilla was built in Patchogue in 1888 by Elisha Saxton, an early partner of Gil Smith, Long Island's best-known boat designer. It's a "gaff-rigged sloop," which means the mainsail is supported by a heavy wooden gaff or pole.

It was built for George Rhinehart, an oysterman from Lawrence, and had a 3-foot, 7-inch draft and large 14-foot beam to allow it to pull dredges over shallow shellfish beds and haul loads of oysters to market. Rhinehart named his purchase for his new wife, and worked in Jamaica Bay and the Rockaways. A series of Connecticut oystermen owned the boat from 1900 to 1963, when it became a private yacht.

When it was time to head back to the museum, Caldwell called to the crew: "ready about." After the crew repeated the command, the skipper said "hard over" and spun the wheel to turn Priscilla onto a reverse course.

With its round hull and wide profile, the boat turned reluctantly. But no one complained.

"You have to make sure you have plenty of momentum when you're tacking," Caldwell said. "She has her peculiarities, as any 19th century vessel does."

Scoop on the sloop

Priscilla is Long Island's oldest surviving oyster sloop, one of hundreds of such sail-powered craft that dragged dredges across bay bottoms to harvest oysters. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006. The particulars:

Built. 1888, by Elisha Saxton of Patchogue. He was once a partner of Gil Smith, perhaps the most renowned boat designer in Long Island's history.

Original owner. George Rhinehart, an oysterman in Lawrence who named the craft for his wife. He worked the boat in Jamaica Bay and the Rockaways.

Dimensions. 60 feet long, 14-foot beam. The white pine mast is 44 feet tall, the boom below the mainsail is 34 feet long and the gaff from which the sail hangs is 20 feet long. The hull is round-bottomed with a retractable centerboard.

Home port. Long Island Maritime Museum, West Sayville.

To sail on it. See or call 631-854-4974. - Bill Bleyer

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