MANTEO — After being stuck at home for nearly four years, the state-owned 16th century representative sailing ship Elizabeth II should soon be able to venture out from its dock alongside Roanoke Island Festival Park.
Long-delayed dredging was set to begin Monday at the intersection of Roanoke Sound and Shallowbag Bay, but technical and weather challenges put off the work for at least another day. The project is needed to unclog a channel that will allow the three-masted, six-sailed vessel to motor off from its Manteo homeport for overdue maintenance work.
“I am just waiting for the dredge to show up, and I’ll know that it’s true,” Dwight Gregory, chair of the nonprofit Friends of Elizabeth II, recently told Coastal Review Online, alluding to the complications involved in funding and planning the project.
The Dare County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 16 approved a contract to dredge about 2.2 miles of channel, as well as an additional 290 feet to reach the ship’s berth. Contractor Salmons Dredging Inc. of Charleston, South Carolina, is slated to complete the $1,635,843.55 contract by Feb. 28, 2021. Funds for the project were provided by the North Carolina General Assembly with an appropriation of $1.9 million in its adjusted 2018 budget, with another provision stating that matching funds were not required.
When it was later discovered that the stretch of channel to the ship also needed dredging, additional funds had to be found because that section was not covered in the state law. Dare County, which had earlier agreed to administer the project, applied to the state Shallow Draft Navigation Fund for grant of $127,000. The town of Manteo has agreed to pay the $43,000 local cost-share.
The square-rigged ship — its teal blue, white and tan markings a bold contrast with its wooden hull — has been an eye-catching, year-round resident at its Doughs Creek berth, providing a picturesque view across the creek for visitors strolling along the boardwalk at the Manteo waterfront.
Built for $650,000 with private donations to represent the Elizabeth, one of the ships that sailed from England to Roanoke Island as part of the 1584-1587 Roanoke Voyages, the vessel was dedicated in Manteo in 1984 as part of the 400th anniversary celebration of the English arrival to the New World. The ship was donated 14 years later to Roanoke Island Festival Park, a state museum that interprets the history of the Roanoke colonists and Native Americans.
Gregory, who volunteers as first mate on the vessel and helps with its upkeep, said the ship was last hauled out for its annual maintenance in January 2017. But shoaling, especially at the entrance to the harbor, had since made the channel impassable for the 69-foot vessel, which has an 8-foot draft. Currently, water depth in different sections range from 1- to 5-feet and 6- to 7-feet.
Adam Priest, project engineer with Wilmington-based Coastal Protection Engineering of North Carolina, the firm hired by Dare County to handle permit applications and planning, said Monday that the project was temporarily halted by technical issues just as work was set to begin. A weather system also moved into the area Monday morning with strong gusts and thunderstorms.
Priest said that when work commences, the channel will be dredged 9 feet deep and 50 feet wide. The estimated 30,639 cubic yards of material to be removed will be barged to a site on the west side of Shallowbag Bay and off-loaded there, he said. It then will be trucked to a disposal area at the Dare County Landfill in Manns Harbor, where it will be used to cover the landfill.
Meanwhile, the Elizabeth II will spend its fourth consecutive winter sitting in water, not moving — a risk for any boat. Although vessels with wooden hulls are more vulnerable to damage from shipworms and rot the longer they’re immobile and immersed, Gregory said that the ship, which regularly has routine maintenance on its interior and deck and other above-water areas, does not exhibit any significant leaks and so far seems to be holding up.
“For a ship celebrating its 37th anniversary,” he said, “it’s doing really well.”
While she remains hopeful that the Elizabeth II has not suffered much damage, Kim Sawyer, executive director of Roanoke Island Festival Park, said that no time will be wasted getting the ship in dry dock for a thorough inspection at the state shipyard in Manns Harbor.
“Once we get the ship out, we want to get a condition survey done,” she said. “We don’t know what she’s looking like under the waterline — of course, you never know for sure until she’s out of the water.”
Conducted by a certified marine surveyor, the ship is usually inspected every five years. During the last survey in February 2016, surveyor Paul C. Haley with Capt. G.W. Full and Associates Marine Surveyors in Orleans, Massachusetts, noted 80 items on the ship that warranted varying degrees of attention, from simply keeping an eye on it, to replacement and/or repair.
In his report, some of which was redacted for proprietary reasons, Haley said that “considerable work” had been done since the prior inspection in February 2011, including replacement above the waterline of “a good portion” of planking.
Although he said that the items were prioritized, that information was not evident.
“The next area that will need attention is the bottom,” he wrote, adding that planking was showing some deterioration. Haley recommended that at the next dry dock, the bottom should be stripped of paint to fully assess the condition of the wood.
The overall survey involved a visual and hammer-test inspection of the hull’s underbody and topsides, including transom, deck and cabin top, also rudder, propeller, shafts and related equipment. It also examined the interior, including accessible spaces, and masts. Haley noted that rigging had been inspected earlier at the park, and there were no sea trials or mechanical inspections.
Overall, he said, the ship “would be considered a good marine risk” after prioritized work was completed.
“The Elizabeth II has had very good maintenance over the years,” the report concluded. “It is apparent that her condition is directly related to the good maintenance staff that looks after the vessel and their maintenance of her.”
Crewed by interpreters in 16th century garb, Elizabeth II has been a popular static attraction at Roanoke Island Festival Park, which, barring pandemic-related restrictions, is open March 1- Dec. 31.
Sawyer, who has been at the park’s helm for more than a decade, said the goal is to return the ship to its duty as an ambassador, sailing to different coastal ports to promote North Carolina’s rich maritime history.
In earlier days of big dreams and fatter state budgets, the Elizabeth II had a mission to sail to a different port every year. State officials had planned for the 50-ton ship to leave its Manteo homeport every spring and fall, pulling into harbors along the coast in spectacular full sail.
In a harbinger of its future woes, the Elizabeth II got stuck in the harbor on its first attempt to set forth on adventure.
According to a May 11, 1985, article in the New York Times, the federal government had declined to pay to dredge the channel, which had as little as 3 feet of water in some sections. Facing the embarrassment of their star being unable to leave its slip, the state finally ponied up $685,000 to pay the Corps of Engineers to do the work.
Conditions in the channel have since returned to where they were in the early 1980s, leaving the Elizabeth II once again stuck at its homeport.
Addressing the question of the need to avoid repeating the problem, Dare County has included future maintenance of the Manteo channel in its proposed long-term waterways management plan, said Brent Johnson, Dare County waterways project manager.
And as soon as possible, Sawyer promised, the Elizabeth II will again resume its popular ambassador trips along the coast.
“We definitely want to get her out to another port,” she said. “Edenton is the last trip we had planned (but canceled) in October 2017. It would definitely be Edenton when we are ready to go.”