Floating history
The 1888 oyster sloop Priscilla

Courtesy photos

Floating history


SUFFOLK COUNTY—The 1888 oyster sloop Priscilla, which witnessed neglected times, then a joyous renovation by shipwrights Ricardo Vicente and Josh Herman that was celebrated in 2003 with 3,000 people turning out for its resurgence, is about to be feted again.

Priscilla is turning 130 this year. Mark your calendars for May 5 for an event at the Long Island Maritime Museum.

Like all things old and fine, it needed an update.  But the historic vessel, built by Elisha Saxton, got it in time for this milestone.

“In 2016, Priscilla’s engine started to sputter and needed to be repaired,” explained LIMM executive director Terry Blitman. “It had seen its day.” And that meant a compromised sailing schedule for the public and poor sales.

A $25,000 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation saved the day in 2017. So did mechanical engineer Nobby Peers, owner of Whitworth Marine Services in Patchogue, and shipwright Josh Herman, who reprised his role with Priscilla. 

Peers, who specializes in antique restorations on museum boats, explained that the old engine, a refit from the celebrated 2003 launch, was long in the tooth and had churned out a lot of hours. “It was smoking a bit but was still running fine, but when I did a repair, taking the cylinder off in 2015, I could see she was worn inside,” he said. 

So how do you nudge a 600-pound engine out of a vessel and then replace it with a new one?

“What you do is manhandle it between a couple of guys and skid the engine onto where a crane can come inside the hatch and pluck it out, which is what we did, and that’s how we got the new engine in,” Peers explained. 

“You use hoists and various forms to lift up the engine, but you can’t get around the manual labor part.”

Herman helped with the motor’s ejection and also removed the hatch covers, sanded and painted them, removed the sails and lines, oiled all the blocks for the rigging, stripped the fuel tank lines, took the fire extinguisher system out and changed filters, among other things. “We took it down to nothing and rehabilitated its components,” he said. 

Priscilla now has a new 50-horsepower Beta Marine engine. Peers said it was a two-week project with their dual roles.

To say that the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation funding was a boon is an understatement; the grant award helped continue LIMM’s mission. “We’re very thankful,” Blitman said, emphasizing that the Priscilla didn’t miss one sail last year with its new engine. 

“It resulted in our best-selling season,” she said. That meant regular two-hour public sails on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with a dine-and-sail package offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays that included a $30 credit voucher to be used at The Snapper Inn, where Priscilla is docked.

“We also restructured Priscilla’s sailing program management team,” she added. 

Peers and Herman are among the few boat whisperers of historic wooden vessels. Herman is also working on the Carmans River Maritime Center’s Elvira, the “P” class sloop built by famous Patchogue boat builder Gil Smith; he mentioned drawing up a sail plan for it on the morning of the interview. Peers said he and his colleague were both working on a restoration of the Ida May oyster harvesting boat in Oyster Bay, spec’ing out the systems. (Peers has taken many a long sailing voyage himself.)

Besides Priscilla’s 130th birthday, LIMM will celebrate her up-rigging event on May 5. That means the rigging, stored in the LIMM’s Penney Boat Shop, comes out. 

“The hatch covers are removed, sanded and painted,” Herman explained of the work done to get the rigging ready. “They actually paint the entire cabin top [and] life jacket boxes. They oil the blocks for the rigging and check the rigging for damage and restoration.”

In essence, the up-rigging event symbolizes the start of the new season. 

“It’s when all the equipment comes out again,” Blitman said of the occasion when Priscilla dons her maritime clothing again, ready to set sail.

Nobby Peers and Josh Herman remove the old engine of the Priscilla. The Long Island Maritime Museum’s 1888 oyster sloop received a new one, thanks to the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, and is celebrating its 130th birthday this year.