Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ship of fools

Okay. I just HAD to vent about this - after all, it's virtually in my back yard (not the way NHS is - ha!) and a major point of local attention in the last several months.

To paraphrase for those who haven't heard, Schooner Virginia - a ship built less than a decade ago to be a sail training platform, goodwill ambassador of the Commonwealth, and preserver of our seafaring heritage - is on the rocks. After running hard aground in the red ink of her own ledgers, the program was shut down and the ship tied up at a Norfolk dock, where she has been waiting for salvation. That was last year. Now fast forward to 2010, when the ship's SEVEN FIGURE DEBT (!) is crippling most efforts to stabilize her situation by other 501(c)3 organizations, such as Nauticus.

Let me say for starters that I am NOT the Will King who is Executive Director of that program. Same name, I know, very confusing.
In short, the problem stems from two critical issues: intended mission and basic business plans. And in this case, they are relatively well entwined.
All of the stated purposes of the program are great and very meaningful. They are also sugared fluff. Why should I say that? Because although the people that conceived and fostered this project probably had great visions of their noble schooner plowing the waves, they did not consider the limitations of such a hull form in terms of accommodations and deck space, which equals REVENUE. It's one thing to say you want sail training and all that, and make that your "mission", but if you insist on a design that cripples that mission, you're doomed from the start.

As has been pointed out in several articles and in discussion, the program also lacked a compelling story - some kind of historical background for people to get behind, that would anchor the vessel to its community. The original ship, built in the early years of the 20th century, was obsolete even when built. According to the ship's own history page (now removed), the original's mission of "sail training for pilots" was even called into question by lawmakers at the time when the pilots began taking the ship out for drunken benders in Chesapeake Bay. Yeah, great precedent. And I'm not even touching the fact that her design was modelled after America's Cup yachts- yes, yachts. Sleek, fast, with little space for accommodations and even less appeal to the common masses. It's easy to draw the connection to it as an elitist symbol - in fact, that is the distinct impression she gives me.

Couple all of this with the fact that the half-baked project was totally enabled by one-time grants and other funds that WERE NOT EARNED by the program, nor could be earned by the program. The majority of the funds for construction and to support her first several years of operation came from the same place - the government. So it's understandable that taxpayers should be irked by the utter failure of a scheme that they helped get off the ground. Where, after all, was the business plan? Surely those people couldn't have expected the 'free money' to last forever? But yes, yes they did.

All I can think of is this - aren't these people 'adults'? Aren't these the 'responsible type' of 'successful people' I am supposed to look up to and learn from? What the hell happened? Why do decision makers buy off on these things? And not to say the program shouldn't have received a helping hand in start-up, but shouldn't they have had a viable (and in fact bullet-proof) plan to stand on their own?

I WILL NOT pine for the loss of the Schooner Virginia. Instead I think it ought to be an example to everyone else thinking about such projects - myself included. In fact - I will go so far as to DAMN THEIR IDIOCY because from now on, it will be just that much more difficult for another such idea to get off the ground, no matter how well conceived, thought out and planned.


The last point I make in reference to rebuilding. This region DESERVES a tall ship of its own. A center of community pride and enthusiasm cruising our local waters. But it is not that schooner.

Of course, in my biased opinion, it ought to be a warship of some historical note - something that was built in Virginia for the public service, and used exclusively in that regard throughout its life. Give me a square-rigger with stout, hearty lines and capacity for 150 students by day and 50 overnight. Something manned by a crew of 20 talented, dedicated educators, with an administration that looks after them as their first priority. Let her be the embodiment of efficiency and good order, the very best of working people coming together.

Sadly, I grow less and less confident that it can or will ever happen.


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