After more than two years of sitting idle, the S/V Denis Sullivan will sail once again in October. But when the tall ship leaves its dock at Discovery World, it will be sailing to a new permanent home on the East Coast.
Discovery World has sold the vessel to World Ocean School, a nonprofit based in Boston that will operate the ship year-round, according to Discovery World President and CEO Bryan Wunar.
The 137-foot ship — the world's only replica of a 19th-century three-masted Great Lakes schooner — was completed in 2000 after more than 400 volunteers put in 1 million hours of work at a cost of $4.2 million. Discovery World took possession when the museum moved to its current location, known as Pier Wisconsin, in 2006.
The ship today is valued at about $1 million, but "there is a very limited marketplace for wooden tall ships, so that is not necessarily the market value," according to Paul Fladten, public relations senior manager for Discovery World. Wunar declined to disclose the sale price.
He said it was a "hard decision" to sell the Sullivan, especially for board members who were involved in conceptualizing and building the ship. But in the end, they all agreed it was best for the Sullivan and Discovery World, after years of the museum struggling to pay for the ship's maintenance and upkeep, exacerbated by a pandemic that closed the museum for a period and put a halt to sailing.
"We took this very seriously," Wunar said. "And it has led to what I think is a really positive outcome. Because as of right now, we still didn't have a crew here. ... We weren't sure if there would be a sailing season in 2023 and the fact that the Sullivan will be sailing before the end of 2022 is, I think, a big plus for being able to have the Sullivan operating fully again."
Tom Martens, who is part of the unofficial Friends of the S/V Denis Sullivan, said that while it wasn't surprising that the Sullivan was being sold given its recent idle history and the museum's financial position, it is disappointing. But he's happy to hear its primary mission will sail on, instead of the ship sitting in dry dock somewhere.
"It'll be missed on the Great Lakes, but it's nice to hear that the organization taking it is an educational organization," he said. "That was the goal and the mission of the Sullivan throughout its time in the Great Lakes — educating kids and getting people exposed to the Great Lakes and conservation and environmental issues."
Pandemic, new strategic focus led to sale
After the ship's only two year-round crew members, including longtime Captain Tiffany Krihwan, were furloughed indefinitely in October 2020 and then moved on to other jobs in 2021, the ship's maintenance was left to other Discovery World staff and volunteers.
As the museum struggled to find a new captain, partially due to it being difficult to compete with salaries offered by commercial merchants, they began exploring other possibilities for the ship, from partnering with other organizations to outright selling it.
That exploration led them to the nonprofit World Ocean School, which owns another tall ship, the 96-year-old Roseway, that sails between offices in Boston and St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.
The nonprofit officially took ownership of the ship Thursday, with staff onsite to begin preparing it for its journey through the Great Lakes to Boston and eventually St. Croix. They hope to have it ready to begin that journey by early October.
Despite some concerns over the past year from former crew and volunteers that the ship was not being maintained, Martens said Discovery World has invested a lot of money in it in the past year, and Wunar said "it's in really good shape" now. The work the WOS staff will do over next few weeks is less about repairs and more about standard preparations to get the ship ready to sail, he said.
While the ship will no longer be permanently docked in Milwaukee, its ties to the city will not be completely severed, including keeping Milwaukee listed as its official home port.
"Our intent is to really keep that history alive and to share the history of the vessel and how it was built with so many volunteer hours and with a real love and a commitment to this," said Eden Leonard, the executive director of WOS.
As part of the agreement, WOS will work with Discovery World and other local partners to bring Milwaukee students to Boston and St. Croix to take part in Sullivan programming and underwrite the cost to do so, according to Wunar.
Sullivan will return for tall ships festivals
In the future, WOS intends to bring the Sullivan back to the Great Lakes for tall ships festivals.
"Folks don't know us, and I hope they'll get to know us and get to be really proud of what this Milwaukee ship comes to do, and the lives that we'll get to change in this next season. We look forward to building relationships with anybody in the area connected to the boat, and we'll always welcome folks on with open arms and we'll look forward to return visits when we're able to do so," Leonard said.
"That's one of the things that we're very aware of, the connection back to the community," Wunar said. "And that's why we thought it was really important that we work with them to make sure that there are those program opportunities, and that there are those return visits in the future, to maintain that connection to its history, and to make sure that all of the efforts of all those volunteers over the years that have played a role, that we can also show that that work is going to continue and be able to serve an even broader audience."
Not only will the Sullivan be able to serve a larger audience, but Discovery World hopes the sale will allow it to do so as well after the museum completed a new strategic plan.
"As part of that, one of the things that we really want to make sure that we do is that we stay really focused on our science education mission," Wunar said. "We want to make sure that we're putting our resources completely behind that, and that the museum is our primary focus."
He noted that only about 2% of Discovery World's visitors took part in Sullivan programming, and there were few years the ship brought in more money than it costs to operate, which can be more than $250,000.
That's money the museum thought could maybe be better spent on its primary mission, while the Sullivan might find a home where it could be better utilized, too.
"One of the things that we thought was if there was the right opportunity, and it meant that then we could redirect resources towards making sure that we're providing more experiences not only at the museum, but in the community, that we're providing more experiences for our schools and supporting science education in our schools, that is definitely a part of the direction that we intend to take as an organization," he said.
From that angle, it's a good marriage for both the museum and WOS, which focuses exclusively on tall ships programming and already has the staff, expertise and infrastructure to operate a tall wooden ship year-round — efficiencies that help save money where other maritime organizations cannot.
Maritime Museum was approached about buying ship
Wunar said they talked to other groups, including some on the Great Lakes, that might be interested in purchasing the ship or partnering with them in operating it, "but locally, there weren't a whole lot of viable options in terms of really bringing the Sullivan back to the fullest extent."
That included organizations like the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, which Wunar said was not in a position to acquire the vessel or take it on in any capacity.
At the same time Discovery World was searching for a new future for the Sullivan, WOS was also undergoing a strategic planning process and in the market to charter a tall ship to continue and expand its programming while the Roseway undergoes a multiyear restoration that will take it out of commission.
They first approached Discovery World about chartering the Sullivan, but as discussions continued, they realized it made sense to fully invest in the ship and operate it year-round, a desire Discovery World had.
"This feels like an exciting time for both organizations," Leonard said. "That being said, I completely acknowledge the bittersweet nature for the community. I hope that we can make Milwaukee proud."
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Discovery World sells Denis Sullivan to Boston's World Ocean School