CHESTERTOWN — Compare the world that greeted Sultana as it was launched 20 years ago and that of the 18th century boat on which it was based today, you’ll find each time period remarkably different.
Twenty years ago, on March 24, 2001, a crowd of at least 5,000, if not more, lined the streets leading down to the Chester River and at the foot of High Street to watch the United States Army Reserve 949th Transportation Company crane lift the ship from land to river.
In 2021, there will be no gathering of such size in celebration of the Sultana’s 20th anniversary — at least not for the time being. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic squashed plans to celebrate the Sultana, the ship’s significance is not lost on the community it serves.
Just check the Sultana Education Foundation’s Facebook page, which received hundreds of likes, shares and plenty of comments with people reminiscing on the boat’s launch or wishing the Sultana a happy birthday.
Created with the purpose of helping students better understand the Chesapeake Bay by getting them out on the water, Drew McMullen, president of SEF, said Tuesday the Sultana has allowed the foundation to branch out in its offerings.
“Within about 24 months (of launching the Sultana), we were absolutely overwhelmed with demand,” McMullen said. “We had no room left. The boat was full and that said to us that the schools that we serve — and that’s what we do, we serve primarily public schools from Maryland — really had demand for environmental education programing.”
Since the Sultana’s launch, McMullen said the foundation has introduced teacher training programs and offered other ways to get students on the water like canoeing and kayaking. He said the foundation now takes as many students out in canoes or kayaks on the water as it does on the Sultana.
The foundation has its Holt Education Center on the corner of Cannon and Cross streets with a laboratory that helps teach students fundamental sciences, McMullen said, like geography. He said the foundation is now in the early stages of developing a teacher center that will allow for more basic, introductory nature programs.
“Our goal for a long time has been to offer kids from (pre-kindergarten) through high school a selection of environmental literacy programs related to the Chesapeake Bay and it all started with the boat,” McMullen said.
According to its website, the foundation has served more than 14,000 students and teachers annually with Maryland State Department of Education certified programs in history and environmental sciences.
When the Sultana was launched in 2001, there were “not a ton” of other education vessels like it, McMullen said.
The story of Sultana started in 1997 when John Swain had the idea to build a replica of the 1768 schooner. The original boat held the distinction of being the smallest ship in the British Royal Navy. Built in the Colonies, the original Sultana was used to patrol the shores looking for tax dodgers.
Swain said Tuesday one of the reasons he was first interested in building the Sultana was because of its size. He saw a design for it in a book by Howard Chapelle.
“She was basically based on a fishing boat,” Swain said. “She was built in Boston on the lines of a fishing boat. They gussied her up a little bit and turned her into something of, almost like a little ship. I always kind of liked her and I always wondered how it would feel to sail her.”
As opposed to other similarly recreated boats, Swain opted to construct the Sultana slowly and with the help of volunteers as well as three shipwrights. That method of construction is what McMullen said led to the large crowd that gathered to see the boat launched.
“He invited the public to come in and talk to all the shipwrights as they were working,” McMullen said. “As a result people just got really invested. I remember we’d see people who’d visit the shipyard once a week or they might come down from Philadelphia once a month.”
Swain said if people stopped by the shipyard to see the Sultana be built, he’d put them to work. What followed was the community taking ownership of the Sultana’s construction.
“It’s a way of getting the community involved and having ownership of the boat,” Swain said. “It helps her with longevity. Not only to raise money, but to make sure that it’s taken care of.”
McMullen agreed saying slowing down the rate of construction on the vessel allowed for the community to watch and learn as the Sultana was built as well as become invested in the boat.
“So when it came time to launch it, yeah we had a huge crowd,” McMullen said. “A lot of good people had been coming and watching it as it went along.”
The Sultana was constructed using mostly locally sourced trees from Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. Swain said farmers allowed them to come onto their land and find trees whose shapes would fit each part of the Sultana they were looking to build — a first for him. Previously, he had purchased lumber.
“Farmers would let us cut their trees. They’d give us tractors to haul them around,” Swain said. “We would look at a tree and say, ‘Well, I think we could get this frame out of that tree and that frame out of that one.’ We kind of went about it like that.”
The framing of the Sultana is Osage orange, the keel and the planking are white oak and the deck is Douglas fir.
Because of the care that was taken building the Sultana and the yearly maintenance provided by the foundation, Swain said it has required minimal repairs in the 20 years since its launch.
Swain said the actual launch of the boat was a bit “anticlimactic” for him — and understandably so as he’s built 75 to 80 ships. Still, he views all the ships he’s created like they are his children.
“Every now and again you run across one or someone will call me and say, ‘I just bought a boat and I think you might be the builder.’ I say, ‘Yep, I remember the boat and who I built it for,’ usually. It’s kind of neat,” Swain said.