(KYTX) - It conjures up images of pirates and swashbuckling sword fights! And while the 1877 Elissa, the official tall ship of Texas, came after the height of pirates on the high seas, it still offers valuable living history lessons. It's docked in Galveston and one East Texas man makes the trip several weekends a year to maintain it. He teaches people about this amazing ship which once transported goods like sugar, wool and more, all over the world.
At 205 feet long and nearly 100 feet tall, the Elissa built in Scotland in 1877 is one of the oldest tall ships in the country still worthy to set sail, and boy does she!
"I love having 6 foot swells out there and feel the ship come up and when she comes down feel the spray coming off the bow. I mean she's a sailing vessel, that's what she does, and that's when you really see her work right," Kevin Eli told us.
Eli lives on Lake Palestine but several weekends a year he goes to Galveston as a volunteer. He's one of 200 or so who maintain the Elissa. On the day we caught up with him he told us, "we're going to be polishing up the brass, washing up the deck, making the ship look pretty."
The volunteer crews swab the decks for the thousands of visitors who come to see the Elissa each year. It has sailed around the world and visited 6 of the 7 continents. And from the decks to the masts to inner workings below deck it takes a lot of work to keep this old gal seaworthy.
What Eli really loves to do is work in the highest reaches of the ship. Eli said, "of course me being a high climber I'm always ready for someone to say 'hey we need somebody up in the rigging,' I'm there, I want to be Johnny on the spot."
He loves to be fixing sails and replacing rope with the sky above him and the sea below. Sailing first caught his attention in 1995 when he moved to Lake Palestine and bought a small boat. "Learned how to sail it just by taking it out trial and error, and I was really bitten by the bug," he told us.
But when he discovered the Elissa on a fishing trip in 2000 and learned he could volunteer on the crew, he caught the big one...or it caught him. Eli said, "March 2001 was my first time to go sailing on the Elissa. I've been hooked ever since."
The Elissa typically only does test sails for 2 weeks a year in March or April, with the exception of some occasional events later in the year. The rest of the time it's docked here on Galveston island. Children's groups are sometimes invited to spend a night on board learning about the ship and pretending they're part of the crew.
Eli said, "eventually us old timers are going to end up in a nursing home somewhere and these kids are going to take over and keep it going. She lasted 100 years so far and she's good to go for another hundred years."
But as spectacular as the Elissa is it was almost scrap metal. After winding up in in the hands of tobacco smugglers in the 1960's the Elissa fell into disrepair and ended up at a scrap yard in Greece. But in 1975 the Galveston Historical Society heard about the ship, which made trading trips to the Galveston port in its early days, and had to do something.
"They purchased her and saved her," said John Schaumburg with the Texas Seaport Museum.
Schaumburg whose fascination with the Elissa began as a teenager is now the assistant director of the museum. He says the ship helped fuel the economic development of Texas in its early days and serves as a living reminder of the past.
He said, "it's like going back in time and getting to pretend you're somewhere else. And it's awe inspiring to think how different, and hard it was to sail these ships back in their era."
And Kevin Eli will keep volunteering partially because of the camaraderie. "The ship is iron and wood and canvas. But it's the people that flesh it all out," Eli said.
But he also earns time sailing on the Elissa for every volunteer hour he puts in. "We get out in the water. We see the fruits of our labor come together and we get to see the lady dance and we know we did everything we could to make it happen."
Volunteers come from as far away as Dallas and even Florida. You can find information about becoming one or making a visit to Galveston to see the Elissa by clicking on the Hot Button.