Tall ships fans will have to wait at least one more year to see the S/V Denis Sullivan sailing on Lake Michigan again.
The 137-foot ship — the world's only replica of a 19th-century three-masted Great Lakes schooner — will remain docked at Discovery World again this year, according to museum President and CEO Bryan Wunar. And its future at the museum is being reevaluated as Discovery World begins the process of seeking ways to use and care for the ship.
The decision to not sail this year was mostly a product of the Sullivan not having a captain.
In February 2021, Capt. Tiffany Krihwan, who had been the ship's captain since 2008 and Discovery World's director of marine operations since 2014, accepted a new job as captain of the schooner Ernestina-Morrissey at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
When Krihwan became the Denis Sullivan's captain in 2008, she was one of only a handful of female tall ships captains in the industry; today, women represent 10% of all tall ships captains. In 2019, Krihwan won the Tall Ships America Sail Trainer of the Year award, which is given to a member “who has made a significant contribution to sail training through the demonstration of leadership by means of empowerment and inspiration.”
After not sailing in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Krihwan and Chief Mate Jonny Slanga — the ship's only year-round crew, who are responsible for maintenance of the boat in the winter — were furloughed indefinitely in October of that year. With the future of the Sullivan uncertain, both pursued new opportunities in 2021.
Krihwan said it was "really hard" leaving the ship she had captained for more than a decade, not knowing who was going to care for it in her absence.
"She was a part of my family, and then they're saying I'm not even allowed to be on her," she said.
Discovery World began searching for a new captain in August but had difficulty wooing candidates who had moved to more lucrative commercial jobs, as was the case for Slanga.
"Even though I think we're on the upper end of the spectrum of compensation for our captain, we can't compete with compensation on the merchant side of sailing," Wunar said, noting they talked to other organizations in the tall ships community who were struggling with a similar problem. "The price that (commercial merchants) can command right now is not something that an educational nonprofit can afford."
New plan for Denis Sullivan
As Discovery World began talking to those other organizations, they also began exploring other possibilities for the Sullivan.
"Right now, as we're going through this period, we're exploring — is the approach that we've used in the past, is that the right approach? Are there other organizations that we need to be working with? Are there opportunities to sort of share resources with other partners?" Wunar said. "So right now, rather than just simply moving forward with the thought of, let's go back to where we were, maybe the path forward looks a little bit different."
Wunar doesn't know what that path looks like, but they started their exploratory process with Tall Ships America, a nonprofit focused on North America's maritime heritage. Through that organization, Discovery World began looking at what other groups similar to theirs do with their tall ships — from some that operate the ships year-round to others that only have dockside programs to others whose entire focus is maritime education and history.
The process has Discovery World thinking about new opportunities for the ship, including some that other organizations might take on.
Simultaneously, the museum is undergoing a strategic planning process to be completed by the fall, according to Wunar.
"It's giving us a chance to sort of redefine what is our scope of content. … How do we engage people from communities that we have not had a direct impact on and that, in some cases, have been historically excluded from STEM education opportunities?" he said. "So as we go through that and redefine that scope, there's that chance for us to think about not just the Sullivan, but all of the kinds of resources we have here. … What are the things that are very uniquely Discovery World, and then how do we use that to make sure that everything we do is guided by our educational mission, and that we're not just adding on side projects, but instead, they all try to meet some of those common goals."
A lot has changed for Discovery World and the Sullivan since it was completed in 2000.
The ship was built by the nonprofit Wisconsin Lake Schooner Education Association. Nearly 400 volunteers put in almost 1 million hours of work to build the schooner at a cost of $4.2 million. The group did it in a shipyard at the end of Michigan Street along the lakefront, home to Discovery World today. At the time, however, the museum shared a building with the Milwaukee Public Museum at 815 N. Lovell Ave.
The WLSEA hoped to build an educational center at the shipyard site for visitors to learn about Great Lakes history and ecology (called Pier Wisconsin), while another group, Great Lakes Future, had a similar idea. Discovery World simultaneously was looking for a new home.
Businessman and philanthropist Michael Cudahy — who was on Discovery World's board of directors — supported the Pier Wisconsin proposal and brought the three groups together. In 2006, the museum moved to its current home at Pier Wisconsin, where the Sullivan was docked.
Since then, the schooner has docked at Discovery World in the summer, where museum staff and volunteers conduct educational events, day sails and overnight adventures, sometimes sailing to other ports on the Great Lakes to take part in tall ships festivals.
As Discovery World explores options for the ship's future, the museum is not ruling out that it could have new owners or dock elsewhere.
"At this point, we're exploring all options," Wunar said. "We don't have an intended outcome. But if it turned out that there was an organization that their utilization of the Sullivan might support their mission and what that intent was, I think we'd want to talk about it."
The Sullivan, which costs $70,000 annually to maintain when it's not sailing and about $250,000 when it is, is "clearly not a moneymaker" for the museum most years, Wunar said. But finances won't factor into Discovery World caring for the schooner.
"There's a major financial commitment, regardless of how we're using the Sullivan, and that's something that we've been committed to throughout the years," he said. "Even now, we're committed to making sure that the financial aspect is not the reason that we will not care for it. It's just the opposite. We're making the financial commitment to ensure that Sullivan is very well maintained going forward."
Maintenance of the Sullivan
For now, the ship remains docked at Discovery World, where it has been for most of the past year. Wunar said instead of moving it up the Menomonee River to its winter dock, they decided to keep it at Discovery World not only as a way to reduce costs but also so they could have constant access to it and keep working on it.
After Krihwan and Slanga were furloughed in 2020, there was concern among volunteers and Sullivan fans that the ship wouldn't receive the maintenance it needed.
But Wunar said it's in "the best shape that it's been in in a very long time." Discovery World staff and volunteers have been working with a professional shipwright on maintenance over the past year — some of it deferred from even before the pandemic — in addition to integrating the ship's systems with the museum's systems for better safety and security.
Krihwan, who saw the boat about a week ago, has concerns about the ship's state, however. She said there are issues from having it in direct sunlight and not moving for the past year, including dried-out wood on the starboard side, which has been facing the sun. She said both sides of the boat looked like they needed to be recalked.
"(Wooden boats) really need to be worked and moved to keep them healthy, just like a human, you know, it's a living thing. It needs to work to keep the moisture in it," she said.
While that might sound counterintuitive, she said the swelling of the wood when it gets wet is what makes the ship watertight. Wooden ships especially need saltwater, with salt acting as a preservative. Krihwan said she and the rest of the crew would salt the deck and bilges daily to help preserve the wood.
Krihwan is also concerned about the masts drying out. The crew would normally apply tung oil and Vaseline to the masts two or three times a year. Without that, they can develop small cracks.
Some of these issues are not a case of neglect but rather a case of Discovery World not knowing what they don't know, she said, and not asking experts for advice or taking that advice when it's given.
So while the ship might look like it's in decent shape to the average bystander — or even a regular sailor — it could be in rougher shape when examined by an expert.
"You cannot let it slide one single bit when it comes to these vessels," Krihwan said.
Tom Martens — who is not an expert on tall ships, but is a sailor — said the ship was in "decent shape" when he last saw it in January, noting Discovery World had done "quite a bit of work" on it.
Martens sits on Discovery World's S/V Denis Sullivan committee as a representative of the Friends of the S/V Denis Sullivan, an unofficial group that was formed about a decade ago and found new life during the pandemic. In the past volunteers have also served as sailors and educators, which is how Martens, who lives in Chicago, got involved about eight years ago.
In addition to not sailing this year, there's not much hope for dockside programs, either. Without a properly licensed crew, only Discovery World staff and trained volunteers and contractors can step foot on board, per Coast Guard regulations, Wunar said.
But Discovery World has added some informational signs about the Sullivan to the south dock where it now sits, and the museum will incorporate the ship in its other programs, from freshwater content in its Reiman Aquarium to learn-to-sail summer camps in partnership with the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center.
Whatever its future might hold, the Sullivan will sail again, if Wunar has his way.
"I think the ideal is that the Sullivan is not docked indefinitely," he said, "that the Sullivan is able to sail, it's able to be utilized to explore the Great Lakes, it's able to be utilized to inspire a really broad range of audience from young children, who oftentimes haven't even been down to the lakefront, all the way up to those interested adults who are avid sailors that this is a way for them to sort of step on board and step back in time."
Martens, too, hopes to see the Sullivan take to Lake Michigan again.
"A number of people when I've been up in Milwaukee will come up to me and … they'll comment about how they love seeing the boat sail up and down the Milwaukee shoreline with the sails up … it is kind of iconic," he said.
More information: Discovery World, 500 N Harbor Drive, Milwaukee, is currently open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $20 for adults; $16 for children (ages 3-17) and seniors (60 and older); $14 for college students, active military and veterans; and free for children ages 2 and under.
For more information on volunteering with the Denis Sullivan or other opportunities at Discovery World, see discoveryworld.org/volunteering or call (414) 765-9966.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Denis Sullivan won't sail in 2022; Discovery World explores options