Photos from galvestonhistory.org.
Unlike some tall ships of today, Elissa is not a replica, but a survivor. She was built during the decline of the “Age of Sail” to fill a niche in maritime commerce. Over her 90-year commercial history, she carried a variety of cargos to ports around the world for a succession of owners. Her working life as a freighter came to an end in Piraeus Harbor, Greece, where she was rescued from the scrap yard by a variety of ship preservationists who refused to let her die. The story of Elissa’s discovery and restoration is nothing short of miraculous, and is beautifully retold in photographs and a video presentation at the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston.
Elissa was built in Aberdeen, Scotland by Alexander Hall & Company as a merchant vessel in a time when steamships were overtaking sailing ships. She was originally launched on October 27, 1877. According to the descendants of Henry Fowler Watt, Elissa’s builder, she was named for the Queen of Carthage, Elissa (more commonly called Dido), Aeneas’ tragic lover in the epic poem The Aeneid. Elissa is a three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship. She carries nineteen sails covering over one-quarter of an acre in surface area. Tall ships are classified by the configuration of their sailing rig. In Elissa’s case, she is a ‘barque’ because she carries square and fore-and-aft sails on her fore and mainmasts, but only fore-and-aft sails on her mizzenmast. From her stern to the tip of her jibboom she measures 205 feet. Her height is 99 feet, 9 inches at the main mast and she displaces about 620 tons at her current ballast. Elissa sailed the world carrying cargo of various types. As steamships pushed sailing ships aside, Watt took command of Elissa as he was unable to afford a captain. He shot his mate in a claimed mutiny in January 1897, and was forced to sell the vessel after heavy damage in a North Atlantic gale later that year.
Sold to Bugge and Olsen of Larvik, Norway, the ship was renamed Fjeld (mountain in Norwegian). The ship was more profitable to operate as the new owners did not have to follow the more restrictive regulations of the British Merchant Service. She retained her barque rig and continued to sail much the same routes as before. Her usual voyages were from Europe to Mexico and South America, but she made the occasional trip all the way around the globe.
The vessel was sold to Holdstrom and Company and sailed under the Swedish flag as the Gustaf. She was reduced to a barquentine around 1915 and received her first engine installation in 1918. Because square sails were more labor intensive, subsequent owners reduced the rig (and the crew) even further. By the 1920s, she was a three masted schooner (no square sails) and operated in the waters of the North Sea and the Baltic. By 1936, she was largely a motor vessel.
The ship came under ownership of A. Kavadas and D. Vassilatos of Piraeus, Greece and was renamed Christophorus. She moved to the Mediterranean in 1960 and carried cargo among the Greek islands. She traded hands (and names: Achaeos and Pioneer) several more times, eventually coming into the hands of smugglers. By 1970, she was in danger of being scrapped. She was rescued by sale to the San Francisco Maritime Museum, but continued to languish in the salvage yard in Greece until the Galveston Historical Foundation purchased the ship in 1975 for $40,000.
Elissa undergoes repairs, a tow to Gibraltar, then a tow across the Atlantic to the United States. She has an iron hull, and the pin rail and bright work is made of teak. Her masts are Douglas fir from Oregon, and her 19 sails were made in Maine. She has survived numerous modifications. Elissa made her first voyage as a restored sailing ship in 1985, traveling to Corpus Christi, Texas.
In July 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard declared Elissa to be “not seaworthy.” Officials at the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston where Elissa is berthed were astonished when a Coast Guard inspection in 2011 revealed a corroded hull. The tall ship is inspected twice every five years. The 2011 inspection uncovered the worst corrosion since the tall ship was rebuilt in 1982. Texas Seaport Museum raised the $3 million that paid for hull replacement and other long-overdue maintenance projects, finishing in January, 2013. The museum also replaced the 22,000 board feet of Douglas fir decking. Including building new quarter deck furniture out of high quality teak. Elissa returned to sailing once again in March of 2014. She ran a series of daily sails for a period of two weeks out of her home port of Galveston. Elissa remains one of the world’s oldest sailing hulls still in operation (The oldest is Barque James Craig, launched in 1874 as the Clan Macleod in Sunderland, UK. She still takes the public to sea fortnightly in Sydney, Australia.).
Today, Elissa is much more than an artifact from a bygone era. She is a fully-functional vessel that continues to sail annually during sea trials in the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to Galveston Historical Foundation and its commitment to bring history to life, combined with the dedication of hundreds of volunteers who keep her seaworthy and train each year to sail her, Elissa and the art of 19th Century square-rigged sailing are alive and well. Elissa’s wake is over 135 years and counting… Experience her magic at Texas Seaport Museum, Pier 21, Galveston, Texas. Learn more about the ship, special events, and programs at galvestonhistory.org or visit the ships own page at facebook.com/1877elissa.