The Barque Elissa is one of the oldest ships still sailing in the world. Launched in 1877 she has been on the water for over 130 years and has served well the entire time. She spent 90 of those 130 years actively hauling cargo, until she was saved from being scrapped in Piraeus, Greece. After being restored and sailed to Galveston, Texas she began her current life as an active museum. She is a National Historic Landmark and the official Tall Ship of Texas. Today she still goes sailing and is maintained by a crew of dedicated volunteers who train on and sail her year round. She is also available for functions and parties and offers seamanship classes and other educational opportunities.
Backstory and Context
In 1877 Alexander Hall and Company in Aberdeen, Scotland was commissioned to create a steel hulled sailing barque, to haul cargo across the Atlantic. At the time the “Age of Sail” was on a decline, and steam ships were quickly taking the place of the old wind powered ships. The owner, Henry Fowler Watt had a passion for sailing and believed that there was still a place for these ships in the commercial world.
Elissa remained under Hall’s ownership until 1897 when he was forced to sell her due to his own financial troubles. She was then picked up by Bugge and Olsen of Norway, and renamed Fjeld. She continued as Fjeld until 1912, when she was sold again, this time to a Swede, and was renamed Gustav, this began her lifetime saga of different sail plans and flags. Her next change came in 1918, when she changed to a Finnish flag and a reduced sail plan, to minimize the crew needed to man her. Under Finnish ownership, she was reduced to a barkentine- a further reduced sail plan of one square-rigged foremast, and two gaffs rigged masts, she also had an engine installed at this point. In 1930 the plan was reduced again, to a schooner rig, with two gaff rigged masts, and a reduced bowsprit. By 1936 the sails had been reduced further, with the mainsail reduced and a new engine added. In 1952 she was sold to Greek interests and began life as a true motor-propelled vessel. Her sails were removed entirely, and her rig was turned into a single cargo crane.
Her last commercial trip was in the 1960s, under the name Pioneer. She was used to smuggle cigarettes from Yugoslavia to Italy. While this may have been the final piece in her long and fascinating story, the fates worked in such a way that she was given a second chance. Her owners had a falling out, and she was left at anchor in Piraeus, Greece. She was sitting here, with the rusting hulks of other abandoned vessels awaiting the deadly torches of the nearby shipyards when the Galveston Historical Society purchased her for the low price of 40,000 dollars, almost free when one considers her age and historical importance. But, the maritime world has a saying “there’s nothing more expensive than a free boat”, and historical ships are no exception. After her purchase, the Historical Society wanted to sail her home from Greece, only to realize the full extent of work needed on board. They immediately began getting her patched enough for a cross-Atlantic voyage. After two years she finally arrived in Galveston, Texas, and the real work began. Over the next three years her hull would be rebuilt, her full Barque sailing rigged replaced, and all of her wooden brightwork brought back to life.
Today the Elissa is doing well, and has found a permanent home in Galveston. As with all ships her repairs and restoration efforts are non stop, but thanks to her volunteer crew she is able to be open to the public most days out of the year. She also sets sail on an annual voyage, which is open to all volunteers.