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Project On to Finally Allow Elizabeth II to Sail

Visitors explore the Elizabeth II at its dock. Photo: Roanoke Island Festival Park

Copublished with Outer Banks Voice

MANTEO — The flashy Elizabethan-style sailing vessel Elizabeth II will be sitting pretty at its dock in Manteo for at least another season without maintenance. But a long-delayed dredging project that will free up the state-owned wooden ship finally looks likely to start in October.

“We’ve got the money,” Dare County Manager Bobby Outten said last week. “Permits are being applied for as we speak.”

The entrance to Manteo Harbor at the intersection of Shallowbag Bay and Roanoke Sound has been dangerously shoaled since at least 2016, but the state did not provide the $1.9 million for dredging until 2018. Since then, the work has been stalled by the search for an appropriate disposal site for the dredged material.

Bobby Outten

The three-masted, six-sailed vessel Elizabeth II, a 16th-century representative sailing ship moored at Roanoke Island Festival Park, was last hauled out of the water for its annual maintenance in January 2017, according to Michele Walker, public information officer for the state Department of Cultural Resources.

But it’s not good for a ship with a wooden hull not to move for so long.

“No it’s not — absolutely not,” said Thomas Lie-Nielsen, the son of the O. Lie-Nielsen, the late boatbuilder who built the Elizabeth II in the early 1980s, working off of original designs of English vessels that traveled to Roanoke Island during the 1584-1587 Roanoke Voyages.

Lie-Nielsen, who lives in Maine and is the owner of  Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, which makes premier woodworking tools, also said that the muddy bottom and warm, salty waters in North Carolina — as well as destructive shipworms — are not friendly conditions for wooden hulls.

Thomas Lie-Nielsen

“Really,” he said, “the best thing is to haul her out and clean it.”

Now that the major hurdles in the project have been cleared, the chance that the maintenance will happen this coming winter have greatly improved.

Several areas that would benefit from additional sand had been considered as a disposal sites for the dredged material, including sections of eroding shoreline along the north end of Roanoke Island. But questions about the suitability and transporting of the material were not resolved before timing of the project had been pushed beyond the authorized October-March dredging window.

Outten said that the material will be placed at the Dare County Regional Airport on Roanoke Island, which is owned mostly by the Dare County Airport Authority, an independent entity, and in part by Dare County. The county, he explained, has agreed to run the dredging project for the town and state, including hiring of consultant APTIM Coastal Planning & Engineering of North Carolina Inc. and signing of documents.

The estimated 40,000 cubic yards of material would be placed on a barge and then onto a dump truck, which would transport it to the airport site, he said. But there are still unknowns once the contractor is selected and determines the amount that needs to be removed to make a certain width and depth in the channel.

“We think the budget is going to be tight,” Outten said, adding that the project may need to engineer adjustments in the scope. “If you value engineer the project … and it still came over budget, you’d have to look for another funding source to meet that budget.”

Meanwhile, there are things being done to keep the Elizabeth II ship-shape as possible while the vessel is immobile at port.

“Everything maintenance-wise above the waterline is being done,” said Dwight Gregory, chair of The Friends of Elizabeth II, a nonprofit group.

In addition to scraping, caulking, sanding, painting and cleaning, caretakers keep a close eye on the ship’s three bilge pumps’ meters for signs of leaking and run the engine every week, said Gregory, who also volunteers as first mate on the vessel when it is sailing and does maintenance work.

“My observation is they’re taking good care of the ship,” he said.

Walker said that the ship is protected by wormshoe, a sacrificial wood on the keel that is easily replaced. Monitoring of the bilge pumps has detected no leaks, she said.

“If a problem were to arise, we would send divers under the ship to assess and address any problems,” she said, adding they will also check pro-actively. “We plan to have some divers go underneath and look at the condition of the shop within the next few weeks.”

Both Outten and Walker said that there is no information or discussion about future maintenance of the channel.

Quentin Snediker, director of Mystic Seaport Museum’s Preservation Shipyard and senior curator for watercraft, said that years sitting in water is not ideal, but that most wooden boats’ bottoms are painted with anti-fouling paint that provides protection from shipworms.

“Just prudent seamanship and vessel husbandry would say that five years is the outside of what generally is protected,” he said. “If she was well-maintained before that, it would probably not ruin the boat.”

Shipworms, which bore into wooden hulls and consume them, Snediker said, are not as much of an issue in colder waters.

“The warmer the water, the more active the worms,” he said, citing a famous example of devastation wrought by super-charged shipworms in the Caribbean. “Columbus had a ship that literally sunk under him.”

Festival Park, Walker said, calls on some of the original shipwrights who had worked on the ship in the 1980s, when private donors funded construction of the $670,000 ship to mark the 400th anniversary of the Roanoke Voyages.

According to the website for Hadden Boat Co., owner Alex Hadden was a member of Lie-Nielsen’s original crew, in addition to Sam Jones, Fred Asplen and Joe Balderson. Over the years, the site said, there have been some significant repairs done by Lie-Nielsen, who died in 2004 at 96, and the crew including in winter 1999-2000, winter 2004-2005, summer 2009, winter 2011-2012 and winter 2012-2013, when all the juniper weather decks were replaced. Most of the larger pieces of white oak used in the original ship have been replaced by tropical hardwoods, mostly purple heart, according to the website.

At 91, O. Lie-Nielsen returned to Manteo in 1999-2000 to lead the $400,000 restoration of the ship.

In a March 2000 interview in The Virginian-Pilot, Lie-Nielsen called the 400 days he spent building Elizabeth II a “highlight” of his boatbuilding career.

“I had a ball.,” he said. “It was different, and I had a good crew.”

Lie-Nielsen said his father, who started his boatbuilding career at 55, loved all the wooden boats he worked on. But his father especially had a soft spot for the Elizabeth II, which he described as a “really great experience” for the senior Lie-Nielsen.

“My father retired and was never really happy unless he was working on boats,” Thomas Lie-Nielsen said. “When that job came along, it was great. It just lit him up. It was a whole new lease on life for him.”

About the Author

Catherine Kozak

Catherine Kozak has been a reporter and writer on the Outer Banks since 1995. She worked for 15 years for The Virginian Pilot. Born and raised in the suburbs outside New York City, Catherine earned her journalism degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz. During her career, she has written about dozens of environmental issues, including oil and gas exploration, wildlife habitat protection, sea level rise, wind energy production, shoreline erosion and beach nourishment. She lives in Nags Head.