After nearly a year on the brink, Falls of Clyde appears saved

Falls of Clyde / How the elegant Falls of Clyde schooner was rescued in extremis last week from being sunk off O’ahu is largely the story of two marine surveyors and how their radically different perceptions of its condition altered the fate of the National Historic Landmark and, pending formal approval tomorrow, will now lead to its removal from its longtime location near Aloha Tower.

Joseph Lombardi, 55, based in Manchester, Mass., is an expert in preserving old ships. He persuaded the Bishop Museum that the 280-foot Falls is in imminent danger of sinking, leading the institution to move vigorously for the past 18 months to scuttle offshore what is probably the last clipper-rigged oil tanker, though not the last four-masted schooner afloat, as is often claimed.

Gary “Skip” Naftel, 65, has been in Hawai’i since the early 1970s. He has operated fishing boats, been a partner at O’Toole’s, a popular Honolulu Harbor pub, and represents Lloyds of London and the American Institute of Marine Underwriters.

Naftel surveyed the ship in 1987, in 2003 and last May. He believes the hull is sound and the ship in no danger of sinking. He has fought to save it from oblivion and believes that while restoring it may well cost tens of millions, preserving it will require less than $2 million. “Lombardi confuses preservation and restoration,” he quipped at the Waikiki Yacht Club. “The difference is about $30 million.”

On Thursday, the Bishop Museum board is expected to meet and approve the sale of the ship for a symbolic sum of $1 to the Friends of the Falls of Clyde, whose president is Bruce McEwan, a Young Brothers vice-president who heads the Caledonian Society of Hawai’i and hopes that funds for the Falls’ preservation can be raised in Scotland, where it was built in 1878. But this requires the Friends to produce a firm contract from the Marisco dry dock in Kapolei to haul out the boat within 90 days and insure it until then.

The actual sale is planned for Monday, Sept. 29, at a ceremony to be held in the Hawai’i Maritime Center next to the ship.

In early 2007, the Bishop Museum, which has owned the ship on and off since it returned to Hawai’i in 1963, closed it to visitors while some repair work on its structure was carried out. Soon after, Lombardi surveyed the ship and concluded she required $24 million to $32 million or more in repairs.

He and Naftel agree that rarely has such a well-restored ship, as the Falls was in the late 1980s, been so neglected and, consequently, deteriorated so quickly. “Normally you haul out a ship like that every five to ten years for maintenance,” Naftel said, an operation that costs $25,000 here. “If you do it right, they can last forever.”

The Falls arrived in Hawai’i in 1963 and was dry-docked in 1974, 1981 and 1987, when it was owned by the Maritime Center. The Center, which was created around the ship, ran out of money and in 1996 was reluctantly taken over by the Bishop, the primary mission of which is to preserve Hawaiian artifacts.

Not only did the museum never dry-dock it, but it failed to replace zinc anodes that would have protected its hull from electrolysis — an operation that costs no more than $5,000 every two years. As a result, corrosion along the waterline has eaten away at the rudder and at 80 percent of the hull, Lombardi said.

“The Bishop has utterly failed in its mission as a museum, which is to preserve what’s been entrusted to it,” said Jeanie Ainlay, a British-born, 73-year-old businesswoman who worked on the Falls for 20 years, mostly as a tour guide.

Blair Collis, the museum’s vice-president, replied, “Museums need to weigh unlimited needs with very limited resources. We spent as much as we could and it just wasn’t enough.”

Lombardi–gregarious, passionate, fast-talking–insisted that the ship was “in horrible shape.” In the bow and stern, he pointed out how the hull’s riveted iron plates had separated from the ship’s ribs by more than an inch, requiring steel clamps to prevent further deformation. “Stay in my footsteps,” he warned as we walked along the lower deck on steel plates that rust had gnawed into lace.

Naftel, a bear of a man with a ponderous manner, said the space between the hull and the ribs in the bow “has been there for decades and certainly won’t cause the ship to sink at the dock.” Nor will the rust below decks, though it certainly makes those areas unsafe for visitors, he said.

In early 2008, Lombardi returned to supervise preparations for the ship’s removal. By then, its insurers had refused to renew the policy. The museum approached Honolulu’s Servco Insurance Services Inc. and many others, but the Lombardi survey discouraged all, and the Museum proclaimed the ship uninsurable.

In January, Lombardi told the maritime center’s staff that the ship needed to be cleared in preparation for scuttling. Ainlay, who has logged close to 1,000 hours crewing on tall ships, quit in protest a week later and became a vocal critic of the museum.

In March, Bishop Museum President Timothy Johns said in a press release, “The ship’s worsening condition requires immediate action and we need to identify a new benefactor for the vessel by the middle of 2008.”

In April, Lombardi and a crew began two months of work to remove the rigging, clean up 300 cubic yards of debris, reinforce the hull and remove objects of historical importance — mostly in the four main cabins that sit atop the deck.

The work galvanized members of the maritime community, who started meeting weekly, first at the Waikiki Yacht Club, then at the Clean Island Council. By August, McEwan had been selected as the president of the non-profit Friends of the Falls of Clyde, with Naftel, environmentalist Chris Woolaway and Shannon Wood, interim president of the Windward Ahupua’a Alliance, as vice presidents. Matt Matsunaga serves as pro bono counsel.

At first, the museum management showed little interest in meeting with the group, believing — as some still do — that it would not be able to raise enough money to save the ship. Instead, it worked with Lombardi to obtain permits to scuttle it 15 miles offshore.

The U.S. Coast Guard inspected the ship approved the tow plan. “How could the ship be about to sink in a protected harbor if it’s strong enough to be towed out to sea for 15 miles?” asked Ainlay.

At the end of July, the museum said that if a buyer was not found by September 1, it “will have no option but to sink the ship.”

In August, the Friends discovered a day before the ship was to be towed that in applying for a permit from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, the museum had neglected to mention that the ship is a National Historic Landmark, which Collis called an “oversight.” Naftel told the EPA, which rescinded the permit and instituted a new procedure that required “public involvement.” The permit is pending, Collis said.

Later in August, after Naftel showed Servco his own surveys of the Falls, the broker found an insurer willing to cover up the ship, paving the way for the purchase. Asked whether the Falls was in fact insurable, Collis said that in the insurance business, personal relationships play an important role, but he insisted that the museum had been duty-bound to show potential insurers the Lombardi survey.