Many years ago, while crossing Great South Bay near Islip, I spied beautiful unfamiliar sails on the horizon. I headed east to investigate. I approached a vessel under sail named Priscilla. I had seen her dry docked for many years at Long Island Maritime Museum. Just seeing her up close on the bay with her sails set and a wake behind her transom I thought “They did it! They brought her back to life!”
Priscilla has a unique heritage. She was built right here on Long Island’s Patchogue River in 1888. That’s 130 years ago. Elisha Hammond Saxton was the ships carpenter responsible for building this amazing vessel for George Rhinehart of Lawrence, Long Island. Rhinehart named her after his wife. Over her long life, she has been an oyster dredge, freighter and lastly a yacht owned by John Woodside. She sailed most of the coast from Maine to the Chesapeake Bay over her long life. John Woodside donated her to the museum in 1976. Upon her restoration Priscilla was added to the National Register of Historic Places and named an official National Historic Landmark.
Having recently retired from a twenty-year Fire Island Lighthouse gig, I was looking to volunteer where I could contribute without doing the “Board of Directors” thing. The Maritime Museum was looking for volunteers to get Priscilla “ship shape” for the 2018 sailing season. Just the kind of volunteer work I was looking for. It sounds strange, but I consider it a privilege to help tidy up a 130-year-old historical gem.
This spring has been unseasonably cold, so the project didn’t start until mid-April. When the call came, I went one early morning to her berth at the museum. A group of friendly volunteers were being schooled by first mate Hank on the art of preparing the gunnels and cabin surfaces for painting by sanding. With great spirit, the volunteers sanded their “transoms” off. A few days later we were repainting everything we sanded. Hank is a fair perfectionist taskmaster. As first mate, he made it clear he was not interested in spills or over painting. “Mask everything you sea dogs!” I swear I heard him say! It felt good to be part of a work crew priding themselves in doing the best job they could while ospreys flew above and the smell of salt water wafted through the air.
This was serious paint. No water-based paint here! Only high test, oil based, special order, very expensive custom colors used on Priscilla! I think Hank told me it cost $2,000 a gallon but maybe this old deck hand was day dreaming while his brush moved up and down. All I can say is that she looked ship shape when we finished all the topside painting. Next was the deck.
The day the deck was going to be coated there were enough volunteers, so I decided to forgo that foreboding task. first mate Hank had already informed us the deck would be coated with a highly secret formula of tar, turpentine and Japan drier. (Oops! Was I allowed to reveal that??) All the newly painted areas were masked and the deck was coated twice.
One week after the deck coating dried, we returned to rig all the lines. The professional shipwright was Josh. This is what Josh does. He spent the day in a boson’s chair hoisted high to the top of the mast. We straightened out the blocks and lines on the dock and fed them up to him. No way would I be hoisted that high up in a boson’s chair, but this is Josh’s profession and his skill is obvious. All the lines on the dock that went up the mast were rigged into position. It’s amazing someone wasn’t lifted aloft by mistake, but we listened to Hank and Josh and any confusion was quickly avoided.
On Saturday, May 5th I returned with my grandson Nate to watch as the sails were all re-rigged after a winter of storage. We lifted the boom and gaff off their special cart and into position. With so many volunteers to help with the giant sails, I took a back seat as the task was completed. That gave me a chance to take my first mate Nate on a tour of the museum. He is 11 and has been taking sailing lessons for 3 years in Oyster Bay. Nate is a real old salt for his age. He loves spending his days at our house on Oak Island where he is learning to sail our catboat Althea Chiara and goes fishing on our 25’ Whaler Drifter. He and his friends have sailed on the Christina in Oyster Bay, but the Maritime Museum exhibits and Priscilla opened a new world of Long Island boating history to him.
The final task left to bring Priscilla up to speed for the season was hauling her out at Shell Fish Marina right next to the museum. This is a top-notch yard that works on many commercial fishing, party boats and ferries from Long Island and beyond. They can haul “BIG” boats. This was originally Harts Boat Yard. Next door is the Blue Point Oyster Company run by the Nature Conservatory. They raise oyster spat and maintain leased oyster beds. Priscilla is right at home here.
On Monday, May 7th Priscilla was hauled and boat mechanics checked her out. Volunteers painted her sides, upper hull and gave her a new coat of bottom paint. Since Priscilla is a wooden sloop this care keeps her in ship shape condition. Her bronze prop was polished like a gem. Her engine, replaced in 2017 by a generous $25,000 grant from the Gardner Foundation, was given a “once over”.
During the season, beautiful Priscilla sails from her berth weather permitting, at “The Snapper Inn” restaurant in Oakdale. The crew is well trained, the scenery is incredible and the reasonable cost of passage helps to keep the Long Island Maritime Museum protecting our history for future generations. The museum sits on the shore of the Great South Bay. It has an incredible collection of vintage sail and powerboats in a huge display building plus a vintage restoration shop, captains home, oyster house and educational displays in the main museum building.
If you want to sail on Priscilla, you can obtain sailing times and make reservations by going to the Long Island Maritime Museum “sailpriscilla.org” website.