Keeping the spirit alive – Lowcountry businessmen saved our ship

  • Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Spirit of South Carolina will remain in Lowcountry waters. STAFF PHOTOS BY DUSTIN WATERS


The spirits of Lowcountry residents were uplifted last month when it was announced that South Carolina's very own tall ship would remain in native waters thanks to two local businessmen.

Locals almost lost her to lenders – or worse – another state.

The Spirit of South Carolina is a pilot schooner reminiscent of the Frances Elizabeth, a vessel that was originally built by the Samuel J. Pregnall and Bros. Shipyard in Charleston, South Carolina in 1879 and served pilots in the city's harbor for 25 years.

The Spirit of South Carolina was built by the South Carolina Maritime Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization founded in August 2000 to explore and celebrate South Carolina's rich maritime heritage.

Master Shipwright Mark Bayne directed the construction of the Spirit of South Carolina.

Unfortunately, the ship was put up for sale to the highest bidder in June at a bank auction after the South Carolina Maritime Foundation went defunct and was forced to sell the ship to pay mounting debts including more than $2 million in loans.

The auction by Aaron Posnik and Co. of Springfield, Massachusetts, drew the attention of two local businessmen who wanted nothing more than to see the ship remain in the state of South Carolina.

Mike Bennett of The Bennett Hofford Company was familiar with the boat and thought the original idea to construct her was a noble one. In thinking of the hundreds of volunteers that brought construction of the ship to fruition, he put his name on the list to view her the day before the auction.

“I really had no desire to own it, but wanted the ship to stay in town so that the thousands who invested in her in one way or another could keep an eye on her,” Bennett said. “I was more than willing to back away from bidding if need be.”

Bennett was the first name on the list to view the ship before auction and Tommy Baker, of Baker Motor Company, noticed this.

Baker called Bennett, and with neither wanting to bid against a friend, they discussed one or the other backing out of the auction. Ultimately, they decided to join forces after determining their reason for owning her was to simply fulfill the original mission of serving the youth of the Lowcountry by providing them educational opportunities aboard the ship.

“One thing I don't do is bid against friends,” said Baker.

But another thing Baker doesn't do is partnerships. Anyone who knows him will tell you that. However, this was different, he said.

Bennett could not stand the thought of South Carolina's ship being the “Spirit of” some northeastern state.

Ironically, Baker's College of Charleston Business School class project was to create a business model for the Maritime Foundation that would be viable for the Spirit of South Carolina. Baker had some insight into how it could be properly promoted to make her a viable entity for the state.

They went to the auction with parameters and when bidding ended with their $440,000 offer, auctioneers confirmed with the bank and the sale was approved.

The two men shook hands and joked, “We now own a boat.”

They hired a temporary captain to oversee the boat and had the hull painted. She is being prepared to set sail and become Coast Guard compliant.

“It is awe-inspiring to stand on the helm of that boat,” said Bennett. “She's in remarkably good shape. Even after they lost control of the Spirit of South Carolina, the South Carolina Maritime Foundation and volunteers did a great job of maintaining her.”

They hope the vessel will be ready by the fall to serve the Charleston area and communities around the state.

“We want the boat to visit other states with Charlestonians onboard,” said Baker.

In addition, Baker would like to offer an accredited Semester at Sea aboard the Spirit of South Carolina.

“Students can learn critical life lessons, team building, the value of water, the value of being on watch at night alone and an appreciation for food rationing,” Baker said.

“The ultimate goal is to give kids an opportunity to do something they normally would not be able to do.”

Baker and Bennett will be hiring a captain and a director to run the organization.

“We see ourselves not as owners of this ship, but as custodians,” Baker said. “We're preparing it for the future for the state of South Carolina. For years to come, it will be a symbol of our great state of South Carolina.”

Baker foresees eventually turning the ship over to the state at some point.

“It belongs to the state. It's not our boat,” said Baker. “If we get her well-funded and in great shape, it will be mission accomplished.”

Both Bennett and Baker have been overwhelmed at the display of appreciation they have received from the hundreds of volunteers that brought the ship to life in the first place.

“That alone shows me we've already gotten our money back on the deal,” Baker said.

The Spirit of South Carolina was first launched in 2007 at a cost of $4 million.

Over the course of the three years that the ship was in service, more than 9,500 students took part in educational trips aboard the learning vessel.

With the Spirit of South Carolina back in the hands of those who love her, hundreds of thousands more students can have that opportunity, and a symbol of what makes South Carolina special will remain right here at home.

For more updates from the desk of the Moultrie News editor, Sully Witte, please follow Sully's Scoop on Twitter @SullysScoop and like Sully's Scoop Facebook page.  

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