Melbourne Smith has big plans for next July 4. A year from today, he intends to lay the keel of the first clipper ship built in the United States since 1859.
He plans to sail the ship, 180 feet long and 14 stories high, around the world on a good will mission for America.
On July 4, 1988, he says, the Sea Witch will set sail. And after three years of sailing the seas to "represent America" -- visiting festivals and fairs, holding receptions for U.S. companies, doing scientific research and playing host to dockside tourists -- he plans to hand it over to the U.S. Navy as a training ship. On July 4, of course.
Navies around the world use sailing ships to teach cadets the essentials of seamanship, but not the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Coast Guard has the tall ship Eagle, but that ship is a 1936 German vessel that was handed over as war reparations.
Smith, a boat designer and shipbuilder here, has had the idea in his head for years to build a full-sized replica of the greatest and fastest of America's sleek three-masted sailing ships.
In the meantime, he has built Chesapeake Bay skipjacks, schooners and yachts, and a Baltimore clipper schooner, the Pride of Baltimore, which sails from port to port advertising its owner, the city of Baltimore. The Baltimore schooner is a type of brig built about 1800 to 1820; the Sea Witch will be a full-rigged cargo ship of the sort that was built later in the 1800s. It will be about 10 times bigger than the schooner, Smith said.
Smith, who has assembled a nonprofit corporation called the American Clipper Trust and an advisory board of nautical experts to help with his plans, points to the success of the Pride of Baltimore. For the last seven years, that brig has been visiting ports on America's coasts and abroad, hosting receptions for Maryland companies and advertising the city of Baltimore.
"Why can't a ship do this for the country, the same as the Pride?" he asks.
"It's an amazing thing to do," said Peter Stanford, president of the National Maritime Historical Society in New York and a member of the Sea Witch advisory committee.
Sea Witch, the first successful American clipper ship, probably was the world's fastest vessel during her 10-year life, which ended on the rocks of Cuba's coast in 1856. It was the first ship to sail from New York to California in less than 100 days, and her 75-day trip from China to New York has yet to be beaten by sail.
"Its just come to a point when all the right ingredients came together," said Bill Clark, who runs a marketing firm in Annapolis and is doing the marketing for the Sea Witch.
He hopes that at least 14 corporations will donate between $1.25 million and $1.5 million each toward the $18 million it will take to build the ship and sail it for three years. The corporations would get publicity in return, and the right to hold receptions and meetings aboard the ship around the world.
Sea Witch project organizers note that the Pride of Baltimore is sponsored largely by corporations and is booked solidly for corporate functions when she sails into ports.
But William Beasman, chairman of the board of the Bank of Baltimore, and a member of the Pride of Baltimore's board of directors, said that the Pride's largest corporate donors have given less than $7,500 each. It costs about $350,000 a year to operate the Baltimore clipper, a far cry from nearly $3 million it will take to operate the Sea Witch each year.
"I wouldn't want to be the one that goes out and raises the money," Beasman said. Yet "when you have the right person raising the money, you can be surprised," he added.
"Melbourne's the man to do it," said Allen Rawl, who worked with Smith building the Pride of Baltimore and is president of the American Clipper Trust. "Each project, the skeptics show up and say it can't be done," he said. "Then it's done, and they disappear."
Smith is already working on design plans for the ship, and scouting for the wood he needs and a place to build it. Annapolis, Alexandria, Norfolk, New York City and San Diego are among the sites now being considered.