One of the oldest and most durable examples of Cayman craftsmanship is getting a face-lift.

The Western Union, a schooner launched by Heber Elroy Arch in Key West in 1939, is undergoing a US$900,000 overhaul that will allow it to remain seaworthy for another decade or two. The ship, built and designed by a Caymanian, originally featured Cayman mahogany to round out its frame.

As it undergoes a refit at a boatyard in Tarpon Springs, Florida, the Western Union can thank a fundraising effort by a preservation society named in its honor. The group is still working to raise US$150,000 for the effort.

The 130-foot schooner, which is listed on the U.S, National Register of Historic Places, has been named the official state flagship of the State of Florida and there is a passionate crew devoted to making sure its life is extended as long as possible.

“Wooden vessels need constant upkeep,” Cori Convertito, a board member of the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society, said when recently reached by telephone. “We were at the point where it was starting to become unsafe for passengers, and our captain and crew did not feel it was appropriate to still be carrying passengers. So we decided to fundraise to get her fixed.”

The Western Union was originally built to lay undersea telegraph cables in the Caribbean, and it performed that service admirably for decades before finding a new purpose. The tall ship, which laid more than 30,000 miles of cable in its career, was used in Cuba’s Mariel boatlift in 1980, and it later found renewed purpose as a vehicle for training and rehabilitating troubled youths in the ‘80s.

Finally, in 1997, the Western Union went home. A group called Historic Tours of America bought it and returned it to Key West, where it began charter trips and sunset sails. A decade later, the preservation society was formed to make sure the schooner would be taken care of in its golden years.

“It’s a working vessel. We take passengers out,” Ms. Convertito said of the schooner’s purpose when it is in full working order. “Sunset is big here. Everybody likes to be out on boats, and there’s a lot of vessels that like to offer sunset cruises, but ours is unique because we’re one of the few that doesn’t go under motor power unless the weather is a bit adverse. We get our passengers involved.

The Western Union, built in 1939, is undergoing a massive refit in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

“We get them to help pull rigging with us. It’s really a neat experience to be on the water and not have the engine humming. It’s so serene to be out there and just hear the wind and the sails.”

Indeed, when the Western Union hits the water, it’s a sign of times gone by. The schooner was the last tall ship built in Key West, and it’s the last surviving example of a formerly thriving industry in Cayman.

The Arch family

Heber Arch was one of 11 children of James Arch, and the family worked together in crafting boats that would traverse the Atlantic. Virginia Arch Bodden, Heber’s daughter, was born the year before the Western Union was launched and still lives in Cayman, and she proudly recalls her family’s former pastime.

“Them old people really worked. They were so strong. And most of them lived to be so old,” Ms. Arch Bodden said of her father’s generation. “Dad worked on the boats. He didn’t just go and see what they were doing. These days, when they’re a contractor, they only go and supervise and see what they’re doing. In his day, they worked on it themselves. He would come home red like a lobster from the sun.”

Heber Arch also built the S.S. Goldfield, which was launched in 1930 and had a long career as a turtle schooner and as a cargo and passenger ship. The Goldfield later fell into disrepair, and it sank in the North Sound in the 1980s on its way home to Cayman for a refitting and working retirement.

Norman Bodden, Virginia’s husband, said one would have to go back in time to understand how important the shipping industry was to Cayman. There was a point when these boats were built out of necessity, and they were built by men without engineering degrees or power tools.

“Boatbuilding for those families was really an industry that eventually Cayman lost,” said Mr. Bodden. “They built the big schooners, and on a small island like this, you can imagine they had to be very ambitious to get mahogany from the interior of this island and build boats to sail to Cuba and Key West and Tampa and Jamaica. That’s what they did to survive. We didn’t get an airstrip until 1951 or 1952, and prior to that, they traded with islands that were close to Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac.”

The Western Union has never been to Cayman since being launched in 1939, but Ms. Arch Bodden got to take a dinner cruise on it in 2011. That was a much more pleasant experience than her sole trip aboard her father’s other vessel, the Goldfield, when she was nine years old.

Norman Bodden and Virginia Arch Bodden hold a model of the Goldfield, built by Heber Elroy Arch. – Photo: Christopher Fletcher

“We were coming back from Tampa, around Cuba. It must’ve been a hurricane,” she said of a 70-year-old memory. “They didn’t have any communications. We thought that was the last of us. I’m telling you, it turned dark and she went from side to side. The water would come in. I never prayed that much in my life. I promised the Lord if he saved my life, I’d really serve him and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Heber Arch, uncle of construction company Arch and Godfrey co-founder Heber G. Arch, was born in 1898 and lived to be 95. Ms. Arch Bodden said he was vigorous until the very end. But he probably never could have imagined that his creation could sail to a similar age.

Restoration over time

The Schooner Western Union Preservation Society extended the ship’s life with an extensive restoration in 2008, and it was cleared to resume sailing duty in 2011. The boat was found to need further reworking last year, and the preservation society set about raising the money to make it happen.

The first contribution was a US$250,000 grant from the Key West Bight Management District Board, and the State of Florida provided another US$500,000 in a preservation grant. But when the ship was hauled out of the water, termite damage necessitated another US$150,000 in fundraising. Ms. Convertito said the board’s eight members are all working to bring in the needed cash.

The Western Union is listed in the Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C., as the flagship of the State of Florida.

“We thought it would be back here by the end of the summer,” she said. “Because of the additional problems, we’re hoping it will be back in the winter or by the beginning of 2018. She’s going to do most of the structural work at the boatyard, and then we’re going to bring her back to Key West and re-rig her and replace the sails and everything here. As soon as we can get her back here, we will.”

Fans of the ship and the restoration process can follow the work’s progress on The Schooner Western Union Facebook page, and if all goes well, they can visit Key West and see it in person next year. The schooner is recognized as the last of its kind and a historic landmark in Florida, and the preservation society hopes to inspire other groups to care for their treasures while they can.

“We all care about this boat so much and we can’t say enough about historical preservation. All of us need to get involved,” said Ms. Convertito. “Without that effort, this boat could’ve wound up scrapped in a yard somewhere. That’s local history that could just be tossed aside.

“I’m hoping other organizations that have buildings or boats really pay attention to their history. It’s extremely important, and all is not lost. You can find the money. There are people out there that will fund these projects.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. Very interesting article of history of our Islands sailing ship builder’s Mr Arch . That tradition ran in the family for a very long , and it shouldn’t die.
    I think that some of these schooners that the Arch’s built
    were built and launched in George town harbour across south Church street back in the day .

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