Reborn in Retirement, Western Union Schooner Sails Nightly into Sunset

By: Frances Robles

The last of the wooden cable-laying ships seemed destined for mothballs, but she has returned to her Key West birthplace and taken her place in maritime history.

Key West – She's had run-ins with Cuban gunships and ferried refugees during the Mariel boatlift.

At 130 feet and more than 70 years of age, the Western Union schooner spent 35 years repairing telegraph cable from as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Venezuela. But cable gave way to satellite, and some years ago, the old wooden schooner found itself out of a job.

Now, after decades of ups and downs – dry docks, dilapidation and debt – Key West's historic flagship vessel is back at sea, ferrying passengers for nightly sunset sails. The renaissance took three years and $1.2 million.

"She's considered the last wooden cable-laying ship in the United States," said Capt. Lenn Verreau, who has worked on the Western Union for 16 years. "She's a big piece of Key West history."

The Western Union was built here with wood from the Cayman Islands in 1938. The ship was used to repair telegraph cable, most often sailing the route from Havana. At any given time, she'd be loaded with 20 miles of repair cable.

In 1961, Time magazine reported a tense stand-off with Cuban gunships and the Western Union, which in the throes of the Cold War was accused of coming too close to Cuban waters. The ship's captain feigned engine trouble and the U.S. Navy came to the rescue.

By 1972, she was out of commission and taken in by a group of Keys businessmen.

She sailed passengers and spent the early 1980s ferrying refugees from the communist island, and even carried Jimmy Buffett and Mariel Hemingway. But the business was broke, and the ship's owners went into default. Despite fundraisers and protests to save her, The Grand Old Lady, as she was known, headed north in 1984 – sold to a non-profit group that used her for an at-risk youth program.

It was more than 10 years before she came back, this time sailing for the Historic Tours of America. She almost became the official flagship of the state of Florida, but Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the idea because Historic Tours was a for-profit company. (In 2012, she was eventually named the state's official flagship when Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill to that effect that also unanimously passed the Florida House and Senate.)

"Our company paid half a million dollars for it and we operated it for years, but it's hard to keep a boat like that up," said Chris Belland, CEO of Historic Tours.

Unable to find a local buyer, Belland's company donated it to the non-profit Western Union Preservation Society, but with a catch: The schooner may never leave Key West.

Grants from the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and Historic Foundation of the Florida Keys allowed the organization to hire master shipwright Leon Poindexter of Gloucester, Mass., to recondition the Western Union stem to stern.

"About a third of the job is done," Verreau said. "It's got new beams for the deck, the decks are new, the sides of the cabin are new. It's like opening a can of worms: You open it up to fix one thing and you find more."

Verreau has performed more than 1,600 weddings on the Western Union and has even shot ashes from its cannon.

It sails each night at 7 p.m. with unlimited wine, champagne and soda for $59. Passengers assist in raising the sail and listen to tour guide Gary Zimmerman share tales of Key West's history of shipwrecks and sponge diving as they sail past Mallory Square and other sights.

Carrying up to 65 passengers, the Western Union can sail in winds up to 35 mph and reach a speed of 12.5 knots.

"This is the last ship like this in the Southeast that's still sailing," Zimmerman said. "We're happy to keep her sailing another 50 years."

Frances Robles is a South Florida journalist who has written about Miami and Latin America since 1993. She lives in Coral Gables.

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