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How the Tall Ships Really Came to NH


In 1980 Portsmouth was in the grip of maritime heritage fever. The city formed a Tall Ship Committee to attract sailing ships to the North End waterfront, the evolving chic spot for theater, shopping, and dining. The chamber of commerce, too, had just moved nearby to new offices at Noble’s Island where swift and beautiful clipper ships were born. (Continued below) 



Sawtelle behind the scenes

Bill Keefe, a city councilor and former bank security guard, was the driving force and chairman of the Tall Ships Committee. At first it all sounded like “tall talk” according to the newspapers. No one on the committee really knew how to lure the elegant sailing ships into New Hampshire’s only seaport. So Bill Keefe called Joe Sawtelle.

DPC01_Maritime_Portsmouth_CoverBack then everybody called Joe. The real estate developer from Massachusetts had purchased the ailing federally-owned Sea Crest Village back in 1965 when it was a “ghost town.” Sawtelle and his family slowly restored the 800-unit development and renamed it Mariner’s Village. The neighborhood grew from 300 to 3,000 residents, making it the most populated area in town. Sawtelle and his wife Jean moved to New Castle in 1975 after falling in love with the Old Town by the Sea and its rich maritime history. With publisher Peter E. Randall, Sawtelle and others later launch the nonprofit Portsmouth Marine Society that has produced 31 books on Piscataqua history. The philanthropist helped kick-start the Crossroads House shelter for the homeless. Sawtelle also created the FUTURES program to provide college scholarships for Portsmouth students. He revamped the Portsmouth Athenaeum and the John Paul Jones House, preserved mill buildings in Seacoast towns, and created the Greater Piscataqua Charitable Foundation.

“He felt very strongly that everyone should give back,” wife Jean Sawtelle says, “but, he didn’t do anything for glory. He just felt there were things in the community that needed to be done – so he did them.”

Seeking tall ships

So on the urging of Bill Keefe, Sawtelle introduced the Tall Ship Committee to Eric Berryman, a maritime historian and naval reservist born in Germany. Berryman knew his way around the tall ship business, having secured vessels for a bicentennial parade of sail into New York City in 1976.

Sawtelle and Berryman met at the bottom of the world in 1977 when Joe was a volunteer and Berryman was the logistics officer on a marine salvage mission in Antarctica. Their goal was to preserve a chunk of the cargo ship St. Mary built in Maine, and bring it home to New England. The Downeaster wrecked on the rocks at the Falkland Islands during her maiden voyage to San Francisco in 1890. The crew had survived, but the distraught captain committed suicide. A century later, according to Berryman, St. Mary’s cargo of cast-iron toy trains and rocking horses still lay scattered along the frigid shoreline. A huge twenty-two-ton section of the ship’s hull that they extracted is on display at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

“We lived in tents in the middle of a gentoo penguin colony,” Berryman says today. “The work was hard. Joe was an integral part of the project and a good companion in an inhospitable climate.”

The two men worked on another Falklands maritime archaeology project in 1979. Meanwhile, Sawtelle had begun collecting artifacts and paintings of Portsmouth-built ships and he wanted to build his own maritime museum in Portsmouth. Sawtelle invited Berryman to run it. The following year Berryman moved to Portsmouth as curator of the hoped-for Port of Portsmouth Maritime Museum.

Berryman told Keefe’s Tall Ship Committee that Portsmouth was the ideal port of call. It was an intimate, friendly, walkable historic city that might draw thousands of tourists. Berryman talked about the “renaissance of recreational boating” and the “zippy, flashy industry” of yacht owners who followed the tall ships circuit. Visiting tall ships, Berryman said, would draw the perfect crowd to Sawtelle’s planned museum. Everyone would be reminded that Portsmouth had been an important shipbuilding center in the Age of Sail. The museum would honor the past and the annual tall ship parade would attract modern-day tourists. This perfect “combo,” proponents hoped, could create the economic boom that the struggling city needed badly in the early 80s.



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Thursday, December 14, 2017 
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