GALVESTON – On a dark and dreary April morning back in 2014, we first met the Elissa. Fresh off being repaired from damage by Hurricane Ike, getting to set sail on the official tall ship of Texas was a memorable experience despite the downpour and overcast skies. It was so memorable as a matter of fact, I had to do it again! But this time in the glistening sun with an effervescent sea around us!
The glorious sight of the Elissa with her sails unfurled is one of the most amazing things you can see from the shores of Galveston Island. But being able to be on the ship as it’s pulled through the surf by the power of the whipping winds is truly one of the most remarkable moments I’ve been able to experience on The Texas Bucket List.
“Where else can you go sailing on an 1870 ship in Texas? Nowhere, just in Galveston,” said Mark Scibinico. Scibinico is the Port Captain and Director of Galveston Historic Seaport, and he was his friendly self when we first visited the Elissa in Season 2 of The Texas Bucket List.
A lot has changed since we first boarded back then, when only volunteers and invited guests got to feel the wind go through their hair before it hit the sails. Today a few more folks get to experience it. “We changed our federal status with the US Coast Guard and we’re now taking people out sailing with us as sail trainees. So, a lot of the people that you see around here have purchased a ticket to come sailing with us, to get the experience onboard the vessel what it was like back in the 1870s,” Mark said. “It’s something we’ve been working towards for a long time. The historical foundation put a lot of time and effort and probably five years’ worth of just every piece of that puzzle in order to make that happen.”
At over 200 feet long with a mast that stands 100 feet above the deck, the Elissa is a magnificent mode of transportation and has been since 1877. Originally built in Scotland, she’s older than the Statue of Liberty and has seen ports of call all over the Atlantic, Baltic, Mediterranean, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Elissa has seen the sunrise over 52,000 times and none of it would be possible without the crew of volunteers that make this sail possible. “We usually are a crew of about 42. It’s about 30 or 31 of the volunteers, plus the officers and a few of the staff that make up the compliment,” Mark said.
These sailors are in charge of raising the sails and making sure the 4 and half miles of rope in the rigging is where it’s supposed to be, but they also get to experience one of the best views on the ship. “It’s an exhilarating feeling for sure. There’s no view like it, they say that that’s as close as sailors will ever get to heaven,” Mark said. “It definitely puts your adrenaline up, but you train for it, you practice for it, and then you get to experience it underway. It’s one of the unique rewards of being a crew member.”
Being on the deck was fine by me, despite a bit of an issue staying upright in choppy waters. But once the ship sets sail it’s all about the sights and lack of sounds. Seeing the skyline of Galveston Island from a few miles out while only hearing the dull roar of a conversation and the uninterrupted gust of wind makes you wonder what it must have been like back in the day, especially when you finally got to pull into port in Texas. “Galveston and Texas, that whole region, is part of the whole reason that state has stood itself up through immigration, through maritime trade, through maritime industry,” Mark said. “One of the things that we forget in the United States is just how valuable the waterfront is today, and then, and that flow of commerce in and out of the state.”
Despite the massive amount of money and time it takes to continuously operate and keep afloat this old boat, the folks at the Galveston Historic Seaport are adamant about keeping the Elissa sailing long into the future. “One of the major reasons to do this is to preserve sailing living history. It’s fine to do it in a vacuum or in a bubble with just yourselves, but what’s the point if you’re not demonstrating to the rest of the world that this is still a vibrant living piece of history?” Mark explained.
This history lesson is well worth a stop and one of my favorite experiences on The Texas Bucket List. “If you have any kind of interest in sailing or maritime history, you can read about it until you’re blue in the face, you can’t really understand it until you experience it,” said Mark.