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Milwaukee Schooner Denis Sullivan Marks 10 Years

Famed tall ship celebrates anniversary at Discovery World

May. 12, 2010
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Milwaukee’s Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin serves as home port for the world’s only replica of a 19th-century three-masted Great Lakes schooner, the Denis Sullivan. The 137-foot sailing vessel is a floating classroom that serves to connect students of all ages with the world of water through experiential learning. The U.S. Coast Guard-certified Sailing School Vessel has been designated as the flagship of Wisconsin and the United Nations Environment Program. On May 29 and May 30, Discovery World will host a number of fun activities to celebrate the Sullivan’s 10 years of service.

Back in the 1800s, a view of Milwaukee’s harbor would have been dotted with schooners, the 18-wheelers of the Great Lakes shipping trade. According to Joe Ewing, head of marine operations at Discovery World, “There were probably 2,000 to 2,500 vessels on the Great Lakes at any one time, and over 80% of them would have been schooners.” In one day as many as 30 of these nimble ships carried passengers and cargo in and out of our burgeoning lakeside town.

At the time, transportation on the Great Lakes was preferred over land travel because the few roads that existed were unpaved and often in poor condition, making land travel slow and tedious. “A trip by land from Buffalo to Milwaukee would have taken three weeks or more,” Ewing explains. “But it could be done in only five or six days on a boat.”

Schooners were the vessel-of-choice on the Great Lakes because their sails are fore-and-aft rigged (meaning they are positioned along the length of the centerboard rather than perpendicular to it), which can harness the fickle lake winds more effectively than a square rigger, a ship with sails set perpendicular to the keel. Schooners were not only cheaper to build, but cheaper to man. “There are stories of vessels the Sullivan’s size being crewed by as few as five individuals,” Ewing says. “If this was a square sail ship, I’d be looking for at least three or four times that many people.”

Despite its rich maritime history, Milwaukee didn’t have much to show for it by the late-1980s. When the Pride of Baltimore II, a reproduction of an 1812-era Baltimore clipper privateer, sailed into our harbor for a visit in 1989, a group of local businessmen decided it was time for Milwaukee to have a tall ship of its own.

The schooner was named in honor of Captain Denis Sullivan, a successful and influential sailor and businessman. His schooner, the Moonlight, was called the “Queen of the Lakes,” and was the design inspiration for the Denis Sullivan. “She still holds the record for the most round trips between here and Buffalo in a season,” Ewing says. “Twenty-two round trips, whereas most other boats were successful if they had a dozen.”

In 1994, Menominee Tribal Enterprises, on behalf of the Menominee Nation, donated six 75-foot white pines for the Sullivan’s masts. Harvested from sustained-yield forests of the Menominee Indian Reservation near Neopit, the trees were estimated to average 170 years old. Professional shipwrights and nearly 1,000 volunteers completed work on the Sullivan in 2000.

Used for both science education and nautical training, the Sullivan journeys more than 18,000 nautical miles every year from her summer home at Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin by way of the Great Lakes, along the East Coast, and through the Caribbean to her winter home in southern Florida. The schooner operates with a professional crew of 10, but reserves room onboard for those looking to participate in dockside events, as well day-, multi-day- and semester-long voyages.

For more information on the S/V Denis Sullivan and her 10-year birthday celebration, visit www.discoveryworld.org.


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