Reports on our ship in this article.
KEY WEST, Florida Keys -- The last tall ship to be assembled in Key West, the 69-year-old Schooner Western Union, is embarking on a new voyage under the auspices of a grassroots foundation formed to preserve the historic vessel and keep it home-ported in the island city.
The 130-foot Western Union is temporarily dry-docked in a Miami shipyard for surveys and hull and rigging inspections necessary for recertification by the Coast Guard. It is expected to sail home to Key West in February and subsequently undergo Coast Guard safety inspections.
"We still have a little bit of work to do before we can have it ready for the Coast Guard safety inspections and sea trials," said Theo Glorie, board member of the nonprofit Schooner Western Union Preservation Society.
Launched in 1939, Western Union is the last surviving example of a traditional American coasting schooner. It served the Western Union Telegraph Co. for 35 years as a cable-repair vessel and is believed to be the world's only surviving sailing cable ship.
In 1997, Key West's Historic Tours of America obtained Western Union and began operating it for day and sunset sails and charters. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it came to be known as the flagship of Key West.
About 15 months ago, after consistently losing money on the schooner, Historic Tours ceased its excursions and put it up for sale. Interest reportedly came from groups in Tampa and the Cayman Islands, but potential buyers would not guarantee to keep Western Union in Key West.
The problem was solved when the nonprofit organization was formed. Historic Tours' owner Ed Swift promptly donated the vessel under the condition that it be restored and remain in Key West.
Once Western Union is recertified, the society's board hopes to begin offering sunset sails and private charters to help fund its continued preservation and maintenance.
Glorie estimated that the complete restoration will cost somewhere between $800,000 and $1 million. Tasks include replacing the vessel's leaking deck -- itself a $250,000 project.
"That's a big job; we're planning fundraisers and getting the community involved," said Glorie. "We still have a long way to go in order for it to be totally restored, but the trip to Miami was a tremendous step in the right direction."
In addition to launching revenue-generating excursions, the society hopes to make the vessel available to nonprofit organizations for their fundraising efforts and to local schools for educational programs -- providing a whole new purpose and community role for the tall-masted relic of Key West's colorful past.