How the Tall Ships Really Came to NH
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


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.



Paying the piper

Joe Sawtelle agreed to underwrite Berryman’s trip to Washington, D.C., to knock on embassy doors and hobnob with naval attachés. The plan worked. In the fall of 1980, Berryman reported that the sail-training ships Simon Bolivar of Venezuela and ARA -Libertad of Argentina were interested in visiting Portsmouth the following summer. Berryman also enticed ships from Ecuador, Norway, and Denmark, as well as the Providence, the100-foot replica man-of-war from Rhode Island.

Portsmouth_philanthropist_Joe_SawtelleThen the hammer dropped. Tall ships cost money, Berryman explained in a twenty-page report to the unfunded volunteer committee. The guest port was expected to cover expenses for bunkering, chandlery, victualing, and scheduling of ships and crew, not to mention his own professional fees for locating the vessels. The city of Norfolk, Berryman told the stunned committee members, had spent $150,000 to woo even fewer tall ships than he had drawn to Portsmouth.

Yankee Portsmouth was high on hope but low on cash. Berryman and Keefe crossed swords. The city appropriated a budget of just $1,000 to the Tall Ship Committee, according to the Manchester Union Leader. But Keefe, with eyes on the mayoral seat, vowed to return the funds. Keefe “fired” Berryman from his volunteer position. Mayor John Wholey, however, reappointed Berryman as a consultant to the initial tall ship event.

Originally Sawtelle planned to locate his museum in an old brick building (now home to Player’s Ring theatre productions) on Marcy Street. From 1833 to 1855 the building had been headquarters of the Marine Railway Company. Teams of horses hauled ships in and out of the fast flowing Piscataqua water along a slice of railroad track that ran between what is now the two halves of Prescott Park.

“The project of creating a maritime museum in Portsmouth did not succeed as envisioned,” Berryman recalls today. Efforts to partner with Strawbery Banke Museum across the street did not pan out, and the brick building needed “massive restoration work.” Saddened by the politics of Portsmouth and the failed museum project , Berryman later removed himself from the fracas and returned to a successful career in the U.S. Navy.



Hunting the elephant

The Portsmouth Sails extravaganza the following summer of 1981 was a triumph, kicking off a tradition that survives today. Berryman worked in the background. Now retired, he remembers it as “the most splendidly successful of my various maritime projects.” Keefe, however, was hailed as the local hero, and people wanted more. But the public was not quite ready for Bill Keefe’s next wild idea. Why not tow the decommissioned USS Albacore (AGSS-569) from Philadelphia to New Hampshire? Not even the president of the chamber of commerce had heard of the Albacore submarine. In fact, neither had Keefe—until shipyard worker Russ Van Billiard suggested it to him during a chance meeting at a local bank.


What looked at first like a pie-in-the-sky idea began to gain momentum and respectability when Keefe convinced Joe Sawtelle to sign on to the project. Perhaps  Sawtelle drew inspiration from the motto on the framed sampler that hung above his desk. Embroidered by his wife Jean it read: “We’re all faced with a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” If something looked like it could not be done, one friend remembers, Joe would do it.

The Portsmouth Herald compared the task of capturing the USS Albacore to Captain Ahab’s battle with the white whale Moby Dick. It was not an upbeat metaphor. But, as always, Sawtelle had a plan. He now considered a spot on Nobles Island as ideal for the beached submarine. His consultant Karl Kortum, curator of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, had given him a critical bit of advice. “The key to a successful maritime museum is having an elephant,” Kortum told Joe. Sawtelle needed to plant something big and exotic outside his planned museum to attract passing tourists. The Albacore looked more like a whale than an elephant, but it would do the trick.

Unfinished business

Joe got his elephant, but barely. No step in the process of landing the Albacore went smoothly. Red tape and rising costs were frustrating enough. Then on May 4, 1983 the submarine got stuck in the mud just yards from her planned foundation at the new Albacore Park off Market Street Extension. Engineers eventually built a cofferdam and flooded it with 9.5 million gallons of water. After three tries the submarine was successfully floated to its permanent spot, 27 feet above sea level. Opened in August 1986 the historic submarine now greets up to 60,000 visitors a year. Her story, almost forgotten, is now the subject of grammar school reports and naval history articles

Sawtelle’s proposed maritime museum at Albacore Park, however, remained a dream unfulfilled. When he died suddenly in May 2000 at age 71, the Seacoast community came to realize how extensive Sawtelle’s largely anonymous philanthropic efforts had been. But few knew that over 25 years he had collected more than 200 paintings and artifacts related to shipbuilding in Portsmouth. This historic collection, the largest of its kind ever assembled, is currently on display at the Discover Portsmouth Center and the Portsmouth Athenaeum. The exhibit “Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection” is also the subject of a new book by the same name. Sawtelle’s dream of showcasing the city in the Age of Sail and his vision of Portsmouth as a heritage destination have finally come together.

“He wanted his life to make a difference,” Jean Sawtelle says of her husband and best friend. “It was very important to Joe to have his time on earth mean something.”


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular history Web site where this article appears exclusively online. He is a co-author of Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection (2011) edited by Richard M. Camdee. Eric Berryman is retired and lives in Virginia Beach, VA. His latest book was published by the US Naval Institute is Passport Not Required: US Volunteers in the Royal Navy, 1939-1941.