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The oldest surviving Grand Banks fishing schooner is rising once again

Tom Gerhardt was one of the shipwrights working to to restore the Ernestina-Morrissey.
Tom Gerhardt was one of the shipwrights working to to restore the Ernestina-Morrissey.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Forty-eight pairs of wooden ribs curve upward in a small shipyard on this pine-fringed harbor. Bearded men work with saws, trim oak pieces smooth, and run their fingers along the oiled frame taking shape before them.

The Ernestina-Morrissey, the oldest surviving Grand Banks fishing schooner, is rising once again.

The restoration of the 19th-century vessel, the flagship of Massachusetts since 1983, resurrects a seaworthy ambassador for the state and a floating classroom that can teach students ranging from kindergartners to cadets at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

The $6.3 million project also represents a victory for historical preservation, one that could keep the schooner sailing well past 150 years since its launching in 1894 at the James and Tarr Shipyard in Essex, Mass.

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“Something like this doesn’t come around too often in one’s lifetime,” said Eric Graves, president of the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, a waterfront workplace even older than the two-masted schooner being rebuilt from the keel up.

The schooner is undergoing a carefully crafted, labor-intensive overhaul that began in 2015 and might not be completed until early 2019, said David Short, the lead shipwright on the project.

Old frames and planks are being removed and new ones installed, including Danish white oak from a royal forest that long served Denmark’s navy. When Short and his crew are finished, nothing will remain of the original 114-foot schooner except “her name and her history,” he said.

But the ship that returns to the sea will be an exacting replica of the sleek and sturdy schooner that fished the Grand Banks out of Gloucester and Newfoundland, later explored the Arctic, and finally was used to bring Cape Verde immigrants to the United States as late as 1965.

That trans-Atlantic legacy is one that Licy Do Canto, a Roxbury native whose grandmother emigrated aboard the schooner in the early 1950s, wants preserved as a testament to the dreams and struggles of all generations who have traveled to the United States in search of a better life.

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The homes of many Cape Verdean immigrants in Massachusetts contained two photographs, Do Canto said: one of President John F. Kennedy and one of this schooner. Do Canto envisions a future where the schooner is able to cross the Atlantic once again and revisit Cape Verde.

“Most of us came from something other than a plane, and often it was a boat,” said Do Canto, chairman of the state Schooner Ernestina Commission, which co-owns the ship with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. “Its culture is your culture.”

Discussions also are underway to link the ship’s future with the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which could bring students on the ship for educational programming at its Buzzards Bay campus as well as provide training for its cadets.

“I think there could be a great connection for the long-term well-being of the vessel,” academy president Francis X. McDonald said Friday.

The schooner’s home port is scheduled to be New Bedford, where the vessel had been relegated to a dock as a maritime attraction before its reconstruction in Maine.

In addition to its Grand Banks history, the Ernestina-Morrissey reached the northernmost point of any sailing vessel during its Arctic career.

Later, the schooner became an inter-island “packet” in Cape Verde and was the last sailing ship in regular service to carry immigrants to the United States.

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The ship lost Coast Guard certification in 2005 because of physical decline, and its sea-going programs out of New Bedford were eliminated. However, visitors continued to board the vessel and learn of its past.

A total of $350,000 in matching funds must be raised to meet the reconstruction project’s $6.3 million tab, which is split between $2.5 million in state funding and $3.8 million in private donations. Additional money will be needed to prepare the ship for ambitious goals such as Atlantic crossings, Do Canto said.

Shipwright and project manager David Short is leading efforts to restore the Ernestina-Morrissey.
Shipwright and project manager David Short is leading efforts to restore the Ernestina-Morrissey.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

But organizers are confident of reaching that goal.

“The state has this opportunity to embrace this vessel for what it is, and the rich culture and history it reflects,” Do Canto said.

But until the vessel is certified by the Coast Guard to return to sea, the hard work of rebuilding a large wooden boat remains. The job has been complicated because the Ernestina-Morrissey, named for daughters of two of her owners, was towed to Boothbay Harbor without original design plans. None exist for the boat.

The hull was misshapen from previous repairs, and only a few, rotting pieces of oak remained from the original vessel.

“This is interesting work, it’s challenging, it’s rigorous, and it’s not for everybody,” said Short, a 56-year-old with a bushy white beard and a sweatshirt covered in wood chips. “There are people who get turned on by doing this, and those are the people I want.”

Ross Branch is one of those shipwrights. A 40-year-old from Boothbay Harbor, Branch has been working with prized Danish oak and other wood that are being fashioned into a symmetrical thing of beauty.

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“There are a lot of boat builders out there, but this is a whole different animal,” he said. “I just love the size of this stuff. I like the idea that these boats had a real purpose.”

The vessel’s new life is an improbable new chapter for what once was a workhorse of the sea, one of the ocean-going “trucks of their day,” Short said.

“How do these vessels survive? They have to have a function,” said Matthew Stackpole, spokesman for the Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey Association, which raises awareness and funds for the ship.

Those changing functions — fishing vessel, explorer, passenger packet, immigrant ship, and maritime classroom — have allowed the schooner to survive. But as with anything wooden, the Ernestina-Morrissey will need regular help to survive.

“It’s only as young as the oldest piece of wood in it,” Short said.

The Ernestina-Morrissey.
The Ernestina-Morrissey.Susan S. Bank

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.