Old sailing ship is a permanent piece of Keys history

Docked front and center in the Key West Historic Seaport is a significant part of Keys history, The Western Union— the last surviving tall ship built that repaired and laid telegraph cables and spotted German U-Boats during WWII. For decades, many Key West locals and visitors have been experiencing her glory under sail.

“Probably the best part about her is the way she rides,” said Treasurer of Schooner Western Union Preservation Society and retired Coasty John Dolan-Heitlinger.

Unfortunately the Western Union hasn’t sailed for a few years due to repairs needed to meet Coast Guard regulations. The former owners, Historic Tours of America, donated the ship to the society in 2006. She underwent a $1 million renovation and returned to port in 2009 for further repairs. She was deemed passenger worthy by the Coast Guard and operated passenger tours from 2011 to 2013.

Dolan-Heitlinger estimates it will take a little more than $1 million to get the 76-year-old boat sailing again and in great shape the city and the non-profit can be proud of. He said the last time the boat was hauled the dry dock cradle alone cost $75,000. And while a gentleman has offered to donate masts, the cost to transport them across the country on a flatbed is prohibitive. And yet the ship’s historic value makes her worth saving.

“It would of cost less to knock down and rebuild the Customs House and Glynn Archer City Hall, but the city wanted to preserve the history. This boat is as historic as any Key West monument,” he said.

Key West City Mayor Craig Cates has supported the ship restoration efforts by donating unused campaign funds from his war chest. The Western Union is so popular in town a passer-byer noticed the interview and offered hope.

“The boat can sail again if we believe. The finances will come,” he said.

The Schooner Western Union Preservation Society is exploring other sources for restoration funds including state and federal grants. However, most require matching capital that the society doesn’t have. Dolan-Heitlinger said he is exploring the idea of soliciting funds from the Bight Board or Tourist Development Council. He estimates $500,000 will be enough. He said once the ship gets its initial overhaul it will be a self-sustaining non-profit paying for maintenance through trips.

In the past, the ship’s operators offered a variety of sailing experiences — sunset sails, educational trips and even a star-gazing sail with an astronomer who pointed out each constellation.

“The visibility of the stars out at sea is unbelievable,” he said.

To donate to the Western Union’s restoration fund, visit schoonerwesternunion.causevox.com.


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  1. If the Western Union is supposed to be self supporting after the pending renovation, why wasn’t it self supporting after the last? What is going to be different other than spending another $1m on it? By the way, has anyone actually even seen the Western Union lately? It is a miracle that it is even afloat. I’ll give odds that it won’t even make the trip up to dry dock.

  2. Let be transparent on where all that money went after the last restoration. I know it didn’t go back into the boat. It is the only reason I do not donate. Take the boat out of the hands of the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society and into someone who can mange it properly and reinvest into the boat instead of lining their own pockets, then Im sure people would be willing to help. Taking money from tax payers is not the answer.

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