Schooner Western Union may return this summer

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

If all goes according to plan, the top to bottom overhaul of the Schooner Western Union, the last working wooden sailing schooner built in the city, will return to Key West Harbor this summer.

That’s the word from Bill Barry, chairman of the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society (SWUPS), the non-profit organization that has raised the $750,000 cost of repairing and restoring the schooner. Barry was speaking to a standing room only meeting of the Key West Maritime Historical Society at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center on March 15.

The Schooner Western Union had fallen on hard times, with maintenance on the aging wooden boat put off again and again until she was forced into dry dock by the U.S. Coast Guard in July 2013, one year after she was designated as the flagship of the state of Florida. There she sat while SWUPS members tried to raise $750,000 to replace engines, decking, the mast and rigging. Thanks to a $250,000 taxpayer grant approved by the Key West City Commission last year, the schooner was able to qualify for an additional $500,000 grant from the state, enough for the repair.

The plan presented to commissioners last year was that once the schooner was repaired, it could go back to its day cruise business, potentially raising $1 million a year in revenue, enough to cover its day to day operations. But the Coast Guard requires charter boats to be hauled out every 18 to 24 months to undergo a thorough exam – including prying off planks from the hull to look for worm rot – which can cost between $50,000 and $500,000, depending on the repairs that might be needed. The proposal presented to commissioners was that between $150,000 and $200,000 would be set aside each year to pay for maintenance and repairs. But Barry told the historical maritime society attendees that more fundraising will be required.

“We can pay our weight on operations. But we need to haul her out every 18 to 24 months,” Barry said. “Every donation helps. Even a dollar.”

Over $2 million in donations was raised between 2008 and 2017 to help cover the Schooner Western Union’s costs. Built on the Simonton Street beach in 1939, the Western Union laid 30,000 miles of communication cables between Key West, Cuba and the Caribbean. In 1974 she was converted to a passenger vessel, eventually purchased by Historic Tours of America, which offered day sails to tourists. Unwilling to keep maintaining the increasingly-expensive boat, however, HTA donated her to SWUPS in 2007.

Barry said he will be looking for corporate sponsors to help with the fundraising needs. But even if a sponsor wants the schooner to leave Key West for promotional programs, the deal with the city requires Key West to be the schooner’s permanent home port. And that deal might be sweetened. Barry said the city is considering leasing a berth to the schooner at the historic seaport for $1 a year.

“That’s $30,000 a year in savings,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see the Western Union sail away again without coming back. That’s what we’re trying to do.”