Saving a schooner – Historic flagship limps home to Key West - A large white boat sitting next to a body of water - Western Union
The Schooner Western Union was built off Simonton Street in Key West and launched in 1939. MONROE COUNTY LIBRARY/Contributed

Like a war-weary veteran limping home from battle, damaged and unrecognizable, the historic Schooner Western Union made it back to Key West last week, a shell of its former self.

But Key West shipwright artisan Thomas Avery is on the job.

“Our lovely Key West can rebuild her today as well as she was built here the first time,” Avery posted on his Facebook page.

The flagship of both Key West and the State of Florida once serviced the underwater telegraph cables that enabled communication between Key West and Cuba, then eventually became a tourist attraction, offering sunset sails and charters.

Saving a schooner – Historic flagship limps home to Key West - A boat docked at a dock - Boat
Maritime project manager Cristian Swanson is tasked with keeping the Schooner Western Union afloat at its current dock on Stock Island. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

The schooner was towed home last week without sails, masts or even rails around the deck, from a boatyard in Tarpon Springs, Florida, where she had been docked for restoration work since the summer of 2016. Then funding ran out and storage bills started accruing. The struggles continued with the deaths in recent years of three leaders of the restoration efforts, Bill Barry, Capt. Frank Holden and Richard Manley.

But the ship’s fiercest supporters, including former Key West mayor Craig Cates, aren’t giving up, and maritime project manager Cristian Swanson was optimistic on Tuesday that the ship can still be returned to operating condition.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. With enough financial support and technical expertise, this schooner can definitely sail again,” Swanson said at 3-D Boatyard on Stock Island’s Shrimp Road, where the 1939 vessel now sits in the water. “And I don’t think there’s any shortage of support for this ship. She’s in good hands with Thomas Avery. I’ve just been tasked with making sure she doesn’t sink at the dock before the work on her resumes.”

Saving a schooner – Historic flagship limps home to Key West - A boat is docked next to a body of water - Yacht
The transom of Key West’s and Florida’s flagship still bears the name Western Union. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly
Saving a schooner – Historic flagship limps home to Key West - A large ship in a body of water - Sail
Supporters of the Schooner Western Union hope to see her sail again in a few years. Keys Weekly file photo

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