The Schooner Ernestina – Cape Verde’s Gift to the United States

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Schooner Ernestina - Effie M. Morrissey 1894

In 1982, the schooner Ernestina made her last trans-Atlantic voyage from Cape Verde to the United States. She was coming home, to New Bedford, to stay.

After World War II, the 1894 schooner Ernestina (ex. Effie M. Morrissey) became part of the Cape Verde Packet trade under the command of Captain Henrique Mendes. Captain Mendes, a native Cape Verdean living in New Bedford, had already crossed the Atlantic over fifty times prior to World War II and knew the dangers of sailing in the North Atlantic.

The combination of the schooner’s previous experiences as a Grand Banks fisher, an Arctic explorer, and a World War II supply ship, plus Captain Mendes’ bilingual and seafaring knowledge was a proven success. From 1948 until 1974, Ernestina carried goods and passengers from various New England ports to Cape Verde and was also used as an inter-island packet within the Cape Verdean Islands.

Events Leading to the Schooner Ernestina’s Return to the United States

Sailing in the North Atlantic had taken its toll on Ernestina. The Cape Verdean government had purchased modern vessels so, by 1974, the schooner stopped sailing. After a failed attempt to sail to the United States for the Bicentennial as part of OpSail 1976, which due to being dismasted in foul weather forced her to return to Cape Verde, she would wait until 1982 for her next chance to sail to the U.S.

The schooner was too important to the people of Cape Verde and the Cape Verdean immigrants and other supporters in the United States to not try again. It took six years of hard work on both sides of the Atlantic of fund-raising, supporting, and restoring her to make the 3,500 mile voyage. The government of Cape Verde was giving Ernestina to the people of the United States as a gift. Her permanent home would be New Bedford, Massachusetts.

The Voyage from Cape Verde

The schooner departed the port of Mindelo on the Island of Sao Vicente at 10:30 AM, July 15, 1982. She was under the command of Captain Marcos Lopes with a crew from both sides of the Atlantic – some American, some Cape Verdeans; some speaking English, others speaking Cape Verdean Creole. There were fireworks to celebrate her departure, an emotional mixture of cheers and tears from the crowd, and ships’ horns blaring. People watched her go out to sea until she was just a dot on the horizon.

The voyage was expected to take 30 to 35 days. She was sailing without an engine; having to rely on sail power only. Every afternoon, radio broadcasts went out from the ship to Cape Verdean and American ham operators to exchange such news as location, weather reports, and messages to families and friends. There were days when the ship was becalmed which lengthened the journey. After 38 days, Ernestina was spotted through the mist near Block Island by passengers aboard a chartered ship. The passengers included friends and relatives of the crew, representatives of each of the schooner’s various careers, and members of the state Ernestina Commission and National Friends of Ernestina.

The Schooner Ernestina’s Arrival in Newport and New Bedford

The welcoming party off Block Island was smaller than the crowd waiting at Fort Adams Park in Newport, Rhode Island. As the schooner entered Breton Cove at 8:30 PM, she was met by a cheering crowd, with television cameras and floodlights capturing every moment. She stayed in Newport for a few days for public viewing before making her way to New Bedford.

When Ernestina arrived at the Steamship Authority pier in New Bedford, she was greeted by a celebration of cheers, horns, chants, and bells from a thousand onlookers. The Cape Verdean flag was lowered from her stern by Eugenio Lopes, a Cape Verdean who had lived on the ship for years as caretaker and crewman. That was followed by the raising of the United States flag by Peggy Lyons of New York, the only woman crewmember on this voyage. The repatriation ceremony included speeches from the Cape Verdean ambassador to the U.S., Jose Luis Fernandes Lopes; the U.S. State Department’s specialist on Cape Verdean affairs, Raymond Pardon; and a letter from President Ronald Reagan to President Aristides Pereira of Cape Verde. The schooner Ernestina was officially home.

The 25th Anniversary of the Schooner Ernestina’s Return

The 25th anniversary of Cape Verde’s gift to the U.S. was held at the New Bedford State Pier on August 25, 2007. Sea chanties, storytellers, and dancing, mixed with ceremonial posting of the colors, singing of national anthems of Cape Verde and the U.S., and speeches by dignitaries from both countries. After a life of sailing in gale-force winds and rough seas in the frozen Arctic and north Atlantic, this schooner was now receiving praises from Congressman Barney Frank; Consul General Maria de Jesus Mascarenhas; Massachusetts State Senator Mark Montigny; State Representative Antonio Cabral; New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang; Laura Pires-Hester, Vice Chair of the MA Schooner Ernestina Commission; Maria Mendes, granddaughter of Captain Henrique Mendes; and many others.

Since her return in 1982, Ernestina has been used for sail training, educational sails, tall ship parades, and schooner races. Her masts, once again, tower over the New Bedford waterfront. This schooner, having started out as a fisher, is surrounded by modern fishing boats. She is the official sailing vessel of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She is a floating museum of the past, a symbol of inspiration for the present, and hope for the future.

Sources:

  1. 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Return of the Schooner Ernestina, program of events, sponsored by MA Schooner Ernestina Commission and MA Department of Conservation and Recreation, August 25, 2007.
  2. Ernestina / Effie M. Morrissey: From Republic of Cape Verde to United States of America, July 15, 1982 – August 24, 1982, collection of articles and photos of this historic voyage, compiled by Laura Pires Houston, 1982.
  3. Platzer, Stephan J.W. Bringing E Home: Transatlantic Voyage of Schooner Ernestina 1982.
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