Galveston's Elissa vessel undergoing repairs after Ike
By HARVEY RICE Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 7, 2009, 5:34PM
San Diego sailmaker Jim Brink has worked on outfitting vessels for such movies as Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean.
The fore lower topsail on the 1877 sailing ship Elissa was shredded by Hurricane Ike. Jim Brink, one of the few traditional sailmakers in the country, is crafting a new sail for the official tall ship of Texas.
• Sail area : 630 square feet
• Top width: 47 feet
• Bottom width: 52 feet
• Height: 14 feet
Source: Sailmaker Jim Brink
The iron-hulled vessel, the pride of the Galveston Historical Foundation and the official tall ship of Texas, came through with relatively minor damage considering the forces it encountered, but the fierce winds shredded one of its most important sails.
Only about a half-dozen traditional sailmakers exist in the country with the skill to make a replacement for the Elissa’s fore lower topsail, and Jim Brink is one of them.
Brink, 54, will use the experience gained over 30 years of sailmaking to craft a new 630-square-foot fore lower topsail, also known as a storm sail and the last of the Elissa’s 19 sails to be furled in a storm.
Brink began the task a week ago by spreading panels of sailcloth over a pattern taped to the floor of the ballroom at the 1859 Ashton Villa, one of the historic homes maintained by the foundation.
The 33 sections cut from the patterns will be sewn together at the Texas Seaport Museum at Pier 21 in Galveston Harbor, where the Elissa is moored.
The entire process of making the sail takes about three weeks, Brink said.
He is doing the job at a cut-rate price of about $5,000, which was raised from donations by the Elissa’s volunteer crew.
“I’ve worked for other ships, but this has always been my favorite,” said Brink, who rates the Elissa as the best-maintained traditional sailing ship in the country.
From lark to profession
Brink stumbled into his line of work in 1974 when he was a 19-year-old freshman at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
On a lark, he took an off-campus course that involved working on the Romance, a brigantine built in the 1930s based in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Capt. Arthur Kimberly put Brink to work on his first sail, an unfinished square sail begun by someone else.
“He said, ‘You better finish this, or it will never get done,’” Brink recalled. It took a month, but he finished it.
He had been on the Romance for 18 months when the captain offered him a berth as sailmaker on an around-the-world cruise.
“I was young, looking for adventure,” he said. Brink accepted and in doing so stepped into a profession that preserves a skill that has all but died out in the U.S.
He spent three years on the Romance, then worked on a Danish merchant training sloop before working in Great Britain for a spell.
Tradition alive in Europe
Few traditional sailmakers remain in the U.S., he said, but Europe continues to foster the skill. Unlike the U.S., the Europeans still bestow the title of master sailmaker, he said.
Modern sailmaking lofts use computer-designed sails cut with lasers.
Brink, now based in San Diego, worked for the sail loft in Maine that crafted the first set of sails for the restored Elissa about 20 years ago and has worked on her sails ever since.
The sail work needs to be completed in time for the Elissa to make its first scheduled outing for a day trip into the Gulf with a volunteer crew on March 20.
Big plans for museum
Although the damage to the Elissa was relatively light, the storm severely damaged the workshop needed to keep it in repair and wrecked the pier so badly that it must be replaced, foundation executive director Dwayne Jones said.
The museum was filled with 4 feet of water, damaging the exhibits.
Jones said the foundation wants to build a better museum as it repairs the damage.
Repairs and enhancements will cost from $2.5 million to $3 million, he estimated.
The foundation still is waiting to hear from its insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which may or may not lend financial assistance, Jones said.
The museum won’t reopen for at least a year, he said, but when it does, it will feature a redesign by student architects at the University of Houston who donated their time.
A donor, whom Jones declined to name, has commissioned a work of public art by the Mary Miss Studio in New York to commemorate the immigrants who entered the U.S. through the port of Galveston.
The artwork, which is still being designed, will be based at the Seaport Museum but could have pieces in other parts of the island, he said.
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