Last Chance To Right Ship For Schooner Amistad

October 6, 2015

Hartford Courant Editorial

The Freedom Schooner Amistad is an inspiring symbol for Connecticut and a unique way to teach students about the struggle for human rights. What it has not been, to date, is financially sustainable.

The ship and its finances have been poorly managed by its nonprofit owner, and state oversight over the millions of taxpayer dollars invested in it has been lax. It nearly went under, metaphorically if not physically.

But thanks to intervention by state Attorney General George Jepsen, who got the ship put into receivership last year, and bond money from the state approved this past week, Connecticut’s flagship will sail again.

Because of its cultural importance, and because a lot of public money has already been put in the ship, the Amistad should get a last and closely monitored chance to achieve fiscal stability.

But if it doesn’t work this time, no mas.

Amistad’s Great, Sad History

The ship is a replica of the Spanish-built slave ship La Amistad, on which 53 African slaves staged a successful mutiny in 1839. They were captured and brought to Connecticut, where they eventually won their freedom after a celebrated legal battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and saw former President John Quincy Adams argue for the slaves.

The replica was built 15 years ago at Mystic Seaport. The original Amistad incident was one of the state’s finest hours, but the experience with the replica has been something less.

The nonprofit that ran it, Amistad America, borrowed large amounts of money, ran deficits, defaulted on debts, didn’t file federal tax returns, spent its endowment of a half-million dollars and finally lost its nonprofit status. At one point, the ship was leased to a sailing school in Maine.

By the time Mr. Jepsen intervened in 2014, the ship was more than $2 million in debt and in need of repairs. After a lot of work by a lot of people, there’s a new plan that was approved by the court last month.

The ship will be sold for $315,000 — the market for tall ships is soft — to a new nonprofit, Discovering Amistad. Repairs will be done at Mystic so that the Amistad can regain its Coast Guard certification. The Bond Commission approved a $620,000 grant Tuesday for the purchase and repairs.

Why A Last Shot?

There is reason to hope that the new nonprofit will succeed where the older one failed. For one, it will be headed by Len Miller, founder of SoundWaves, a successful on-the-water education and environmental program based in Stamford that uses an 80-foot teaching schooner.

Also, if the operating plan follows the recommendations of an advisory committee assembled by the state, Amistad’s mission will be more modest in scope than in the past.

Instead of sailing from Maine to the Caribbean, as in past years, the Amistad will spend most of its time in Connecticut, visiting the state’s deepwater ports that can accommodate visitors to the boat. The committee believes that, at least in the first two years, “minimal but meaningful” programming can be run for about $400,000 a year, most of which — $342,000 — will come from the state.

Although it’s not a huge amount of money, there has been criticism for spending anything on the ship, with other budget cuts pending.

At the Bond Commission hearing, state Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a yachtsman who knows of what he speaks, observed that boats tend to be “large holes in the water into which you throw a lot of money.”

That can’t happen. The state has to monitor its grants more closely than it did the last time, and set benchmarks and timetables for the new nonprofit.

If Discovering Amistad can run the program efficiently and effectively, the Amistad is a great amenity.

If not, selling it would not be the end of the world.