There was a time when it looked as if the schooner Virginia was cursed.
Severe money problems, a muddled mission, political bickering and cracked masts — all of that and more plagued the wooden sailing vessel, a reproduction of a 1917 pilot schooner that once sliced through the waters of Hampton Roads.
Today, the strife has abated enough to allow a rebirth. Ending two years of public inactivity, the Virginia will take center stage at OpSail 2012 festivities in Norfolk this week.
Pushing beyond its troubled past has required muscle, creativity and cash.
"With OpSail, the world is looking at Norfolk," said Chris Burns, a leader of the non-profit Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation, which owns the vessel. "To have our ambassador back on the water, fully rigged is wonderful. It's taken a lot of people doing the right thing, lots of in-kind contributions, lots of labors of love."
Built with a combination of public and private funds — along with countless hours of labor by local volunteers — the Virginia was launched in 2004 amid much fanfare. As much as $5 million in public money was pumped into the project for construction and operation.
The ship was to serve as a flagship for the Commonwealth of Virginia, a goodwill ambassador. It would also help teach school children about history and the environment.
For a short time, the Virginia experienced smooth sailing. As the economy soured, though, state support was withdrawn. Private sector support faltered, too. The tall ship quickly found itself navigating treacherous financial waters.
"We thought we would have more private, more community support," said Palmer S. Rutherford Jr., a volunteer supporter of the ship. "It may be our fault that we didn't develop them when this was just an idea. We thought the private sector would flock to this, with our maritime history and background."
By December 2009, something had to be done. The ship, in terms of dollars and cents, was sunk. The foundation's board of directors called the Virginia home from the Caribbean and laid off its crew. The ship sat idle for months. There was talk of putting it on the auction block.
"Those were not good conversations, no fun," said Burns. "We all realized if it's lost, they'll never build another one."
Today, it looks as if the clouds of doom have lifted — at least for the time being.
In April, the Virginia's faulty masts were replaced, thanks to a successful fundraising campaign and in-kind support from the local maritime industry players including Lyon Shipyard.
Those repairs made it possible for the Virginia — which had been hobbled since the end of 2009 — to sail again. It performed well in a pair of short shakedown cruises last month.
The ship will play a starring role during OpSail's Parade of Sail on Friday, June 8. The Virginia will be anchored in Norfolk's harbor to welcome each of the tall ships arriving at the waterfront.
At last, the schooner's future seems to be worth celebrating, too. The ship has entered into an official relationship with Nauticus, the maritime center in downtown Norfolk. There, it's to serve as the centerpiece of a new community sailing center scheduled to launch in 2013. Last month, Jane Batten pledged $1.5 million to support the center, which is intended in part to serve needy children.
Through the agreement, Nauticus will help cover much of the Virginia's significant operating costs.
"The idea is that we at Nauticus will operate the boat this summer and next summer," said John Elliker, who oversees both the Virginia and the Battleship Wisconsin for Nauticus. "If it turns out that we can make it work economically, after that trial period, then the Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation will work hard to retire the ship's debt. Then, it could become a permanent part of the sailing center."
Burns said he's feeling optimistic about the Virginia's prospects. "I'm very encouraged. It's been a long fight ... After all those roadblocks and barriers, it's a pretty neat time for us."
No group felt the pain of the schooner's recent tribulations more than the volunteers who helped maintain the ship. During the schooner Virginia's darkest hours, a core group of about 15 were steadfast, working to repair, paint, scrub and swab as needed.