Heralded as the last of the coastal steamships in America, the steamer Nobska will be scrapped if her owners are unable to find a way to float her away from the Charlestown Navy Yard by midyear.
Word of the new deadline was delivered to members of the New England Steamship Foundation at their annual meeting last Saturday in New Bedford. Art Flathers of Vineyard Haven, president of the foundation, his officers and the 60 other members heard it from the top.
They heard it from the captain of the USS Constitution, which needs the dry dock. And they heard it from David Brouillette, deputy superintendent of the Boston National Historical Park, overseers of the Charlestown Navy Yard.
"As the commanding officer of the oldest commissioned warship afloat, I know what it is like to preserve a historic vessel and have it available for the public. It is not easy for me to ask the folks to give up the Nobska so we can take it apart," said Lewen Wright, commanding officer of the USS Constitution. But the Constitution, he said, needs access to the dry dock.
Mr. Flathers said after Saturday's meeting: "We have intensified the pressure to find funds somehow to get the Nobska out of the dry dock." The nonprofit organization needs at least $1 million, though some estimates suggest they might need twice that sum to make the vessel float. A fund-raising event is planned for this spring on the Vineyard, and Mr. Flathers said his organization is going back to the government with an urgent plea for money.
More than $3 million in federal money has already been spent on the vessel. New ribs have been installed, and all the Nobska's hull plates have been replaced. But before the Nobska can float, she still needs more than 5,000 feet of seam welding between those new plates.
Even the $1 million to $2 million needed immediately to avert the Nobska's scrapping this June won't come close to finishing the job. The cost to fully rebuild and recertify the steamer is estimated to be as high as $20 million.
Tom Carroll of Vineyard Haven, vice chairman of the foundation, said: "We are again working for the life of the vessel. If we can't raise this money, she is gone. But nobody is ready to quit yet."
The historic importance of the Nobska is that she represents the last American coastal steam-powered vessel. She ran between the mainland and the Islands from 1925 until her retirement in 1973.
When she was put up for sale in December 1973, efforts to save her began. The Vineyard Gazette wrote on Jan. 4, 1974: "Isn't there anyone around here who wants to buy the Nobska? She's the last of the Island line vessels that looks like one, that carries pride and a certain trim loveliness as well as automobiles and passengers."
The Friends of Nobska (now the New England Steamship Foundation) was formed in 1975. But the vessel was sold by the Steamship Authority for $67,150 and was tied up at a Baltimore wharf, operated as a floating restaurant and quasi-museum.
The restaurant venture failed and the vessel became a derelict. In 1988 the Nobska was given to the nonprofit foundation to take home and rebuild. Little more than a hulk, she still had her four-cylinder, triple-expansion steam engine. That steam engine was taken apart and is being restored by students at a vocational school in New Bedford.
The Nobska spent four years in Providence. Then she was moved to New Bedford, as the foundation's leadership campaigned to spread the vessel's new mission. They envisioned her sailing these waters as an ambassador from another age. Meetings were held with the Steamship Authority on the idea of returning the Nobska to her historic route.
In 1995, the vessel was moved from New Bedford by tugboat to the Charlestown Navy Yard, where $3 million worth of work was begun to make her right. That year the Steamship Authority governors consented to granting her a passenger route.
With funds and the promise of a route, David Pritchard of Edgartown, then president of the foundation, told the Gazette: "We just became very real. We're no longer a dream."
Work at the shipyard began in earnest. Welders cut away troubled areas and a considerable amount of new steel was put into her hull.
The foundation continued to gain support, but was unable to raise more than a fraction of the many millions still needed to rebuild the vessel. From the fall of 1997 until this winter, the hull of the Nobska has languished at the Charlestown yard.
Mr. Flathers said the critical need now is for funds to save the vessel. Efforts will be made in the corporate world and through the government to obtain the funds to at least get the vessel floating again.
"There are some estimates that we can get the work done and approved by the Coast Guard for towing for less than $1 million," said Mr. Carroll. "We have commitments that need to be confirmed." For instance, Tisbury Towing Co. has offered to tow the vessel to the NSTAR power plant in New Bedford. "We have a verbal commitment and expect to receive a letter from NSTAR to return it to the dock. We have a plan but we need the funding," Mr. Carroll said.
At Saturday's meeting, Mr. Flathers said a substantial majority of the foundation membership supported this urgent fund drive to meet the new deadline. Only a quiet minority had reservations.
Mr. Carroll said the Boston National Historical Park notified the foundation some time ago about the need to get the Nobska out of dry dock. "They told us they were prepared to take legal action immediately, meaning they would take over the Nobska. We had two ways to go. One was to counter with legal action, or we could try to work with them. They said that even though we didn't have much time, they would work with us to come up with a solution."
Mr. Carroll said foundation members Saturday advised seeking funds rather than taking legal action to block the Nobska's removal from dry dock.
Mr. Carroll said he has since talked to the national park service, which runs the Charlestown yard. "I told them our decision and they are preparing for me in writing what the process will be," he said. The park service will seek bids to have the vessel scrapped. Meanwhile, he said, "They will tell us at what point we can still come back to them with a plan to move the Nobska out of the dry dock."
Captain Wright said the Navy's estimate of what is needed to float the Nobska runs closer to $2 million.
Mr. Brouillette of the park service said, "The Nobska was supposed to be out of there years ago. The whole emphasis is that the Constitution needs to be dry-docked for major work. The Navy informed us that the dry dock would have to be empty by June of this year."
Captain Wright said security for the Constitution is also an important issue: "The dry dock is one of the areas we look to as a safe haven for the ship for certain events."
Said Mr. Brouillette: "We have an agreement with the Navy to be available for the Constitution whenever she needs it, whether it is related to homeland security or maintenance."
Captain Wright said he attended the foundation meeting out of a desire to be supportive but also to be clear: "They deserved to have me stand in front of them to tell them what is going on. If you are going to tell them something tough, they deserve to hear you say it in front of them."
For more information on the New England Steamship Foundation and its work, visit its web site, www.nobska.org.