Back to Tall Ships & Self Discovery

Elements of Successful Tall Ship Programs

Successful tall ship programs bring a desired service and pride to the community, which is the up side. The down site is, the tall ship business is extremely sensitive to organization and location. It is more so with non-profit organizations, because they do not have the flexibility that profit ships have. Many promoters do not understand the concepts, they think of it as a neat idea. For this reason, startups have a high failure rate.

Critical elements in the organizational phase.

Before a formal organization is established, there is an ad hoc phase where critical organizational decisions are made. This phase will establish the operational mission and the type of leadership needed to carry it out such as, educators, import/export people or boat builders.

The critical elements are:

  1. A clearly defined operational mission, supported by scientific or quantifiable data. Very often, this is the missing link to attracting major financial supporters. Passion for the mission and/or creating an image is not enough.
  2. The mission must be attractive to various interest groups, not just tall ship people. Non tall ship people are the ones that will keep the program alive.
  3. A primary sponsor that believes in the mission and will support it. Finding a primary sponsor is the reward of a clearly defined mission, and where the promoters got it RIGHT.
  4. Establish an organization that meets the needs of the primary sponsor and the operational mission.

A tall ship project is promoted to two different groups, the public and sponsors. To the public, windjammers inspire romantic dreams of life under bellowing sails. This attracts large groups of people; the problem is, they do not bring money. Money comes from sponsors who support the mission, they do not support romantic dreams.

Sponsors have limited interest in the ship per se; they are interested in the mission, people who will carry out the mission and the its goals. For this reason, it is important that the mission be able to stand on its own, without a tall ship. For example, if the mission is an educational program based on  race relations, then the promoters' must offer scientific or quantifiable evidence on how the ship can be superior to other forms of race relation programs. This is how the Amistad was organized.

Additional elements of successful tall ship programs.

  1. The project must be sponsored by a financially strong organization.
  2. The mission must provided a needed service to the community.
  3. The ship is a tool to help the organization enhance its mission.
  4. The primary mission must have a financial benefit to someone.
  5. Leadership is dedicated to the operational mission.
  6. The shipbuilding phase is contracted out.

The organization and ship construction.

During the construction phase of the ship, it is easy for the organization to lose control of its mission, because the focus is on the shipbuilders and they are the current heroes. The easiest way to preserve the mission and the people who support it, is to contract out the construction. There are shipbuilding companies that will come to a community and build a tall ship.

If the organization loses control of its mission, shipbuilders will take control and the construction becomes the mission. When the ship is completed, if it gets that far, interest, supporters and money disappear, because the shipbuilding mission has reached its goal. There are tall ships rotting at their moorings because the organization lost control of its operational mission, if they had one in the beginning.

Examples of benefits

Youth-at-risk program: It cost state governments about $18,000 per year to keep a teenager in jail. The government would rather pay this money to an organization that has proven programs that keep teenagers out of jail. It is highly profitable for state governments to support programs that motivate teenagers to become taxpayers instead of tax burdens.

Diplomatic tall ships are, in reality, traveling salesmen. They usually are supported by large manufacturing companies. Advance shore parties are coordinated with ship's ports of call. While the ship is in world ports, customers are invited aboard where contracts are signed. This technique has been proven to be a huge financial benefit to its supporters through increased sales.

The Amistad theme is race relations. "Its mission is to promote reconciliation and harmony among races." Everyone associated with the organization has an interest in supporting race relation programs. Crew member selection is based on their commitment to the mission and ability to fulfill it. Ship construction was contracted out to Mystic Seaport, which means, the organization was controlled by educators, not shipbuilders. United Church of Christ is the primary sponsor and they have little interest in tall ships, as an organization. The Amistad organization displays all the elements of a successful tall ship project.

Mission Summary

Successful tall ships start with the ship's mission, where the organization did extensive research, including who will benefit and who will finance the operations program. Once supporters are in place, the organization then makes plans to acquire a ship, either purchase or build. A successful tall ship is a tool to achieve the primary mission, not a ship in search of a mission. This is true for any type of business; the tall ship business is no different.

Financial Supporters

Note: Finding support for a tall ship is compounded by the ship's high operational cost, while serving only a small number of people. This cost has to be justified in the operational mission's report.

Leadership Summary

My experience with a tall ship that rotted at its moorings.

In 1977, I was captain of the Panama Canal Zone's training schooner Chief Aptakisic. At first, there was spontaneous community interest and the program was able to raise money to complete the ship. Once the ship was completed, community interest and money to maintain it, faded. The ship soon died, because there was no physical owner and no money. I and some others kept it going for four years, and then it was scuttled. With no resources for major maintenance, you can imagine the condition it was in.

Promotional interest was in the ship, not the training program. I believe, if the primary interest was the training program, the ship might still be operating today.

The above information is based on my experience with profit and non-profit tall ship organizations. It is also based on research of highly successful non-profit ships, primarily, Pride of Baltimore and Amistad. The research included the Los Angeles Maritime Institute's, Top Sail program and Living Classroom Foundation's maritime program. At the Living Classroom, I was given a half day tour of their facilities with the opportunity to interview five staff members. This tour convinced me that a meaningful tall ship program must have an active shore program. The Living Classroom program reaches out to 30,000 students in the state of Maryland.

Back to Tall Ships & Self Discovery