PORTLAND – A replica of the Amistad, a 19th-century tall ship that was taken over by slaves and depicted in a movie of the same name, is getting repairs and maintenance at a boatyard in Portland Harbor while the finances of its owner are scrutinized in Connecticut.
Amistad America, the organization that owns the ship, has until the end of this week to apply for reinstatement of its nonprofit status, which it lost after failing to file tax returns for three years, according to the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office.
Although the organization’s outgoing executive director said he is confident that the problem will be resolved, the issue is troubling to a Connecticut lawmaker, who wants an account of how the organization has spent the $360,000 that the state has given it annually.
“When you are dealing with taxpayer money, you owe the taxpayer accountability and transparency,” said Rep. Diana Urban. “This appears as if we have just given money frivolously without any strings attached, and that is unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, the ship is being run by a crew from the Damariscotta-based Ocean Classroom Foundation and repaired at Gowen Marine on Commercial Street in Portland.
J.B. Smith, marine supervisor for the Ocean Classroom Foundation, said Amistad America doesn’t have its own crew, so it hired the foundation in September to manage and staff the ship, which had been idle since its front rig broke during a return trip from Cuba in 2010.
“It wasn’t delivering much of a message, tied up without a mast on it in Mystic, Conn., getting snowed on all winter,” Smith said.
He said the purpose of the Amistad, which was built in Mystic in 2000, is to tell the story of the original ship, which played a significant role in the United States’ abolitionist movement.
Thirty years after the U.S. abolished the slave trade, 53 illegally captured African slaves were being transported on the Amistad between two ports in Cuba when they freed themselves, took over the ship and demanded that it sail back to Africa.
Instead, the Amistad’s crew sailed to New York, where the ship was captured and taken to Connecticut. The slaves were jailed and tried in a case that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which freed them in a landmark decision.
In addition to spreading that story, it was important to keep the Amistad in shipshape, said Greg Belanger, who facilitated the partnership with the Ocean Classroom Foundation to get the ship sailing again.
“When you leave a boat idle, it gets stiff,” he said.
Belanger, executive director of Amistad America, resigned from that position effective July 1. He has become executive director of the Ocean Classroom Foundation and plans to continue in that role.
Belanger said the two organizations have a contract that expires at the end of June 2014, when it could be renewed.
There are no plans for the Amistad to be used for Ocean Classroom programs such as the semester at sea, said Capt. Greg Bailey. He said the ship is expected to leave Maine when the work is finished.
Urban, the state representative in Connecticut, said she had a hard time finding out where the ship is, and thinks it should be there, “if the taxpayers of Connecticut are paying the bill.”
The Amistad was in the Caribbean during the winter, then made its way north, docking at Portland Yacht Services on June 4, Bailey said.
On Wednesday, the ship was hauled out at Gowen Marine to get repairs to its propeller, and to be inspected, washed and painted.
The work is being shared by Portland Yacht Services and Gowen Marine, companies that have worked on other projects with the Ocean Classroom Foundation.
Joe Schmader, president of Gowen Marine, said the company tends to do more mechanical work and Portland Yacht Services’ expertise is in wood and fiberglass.
“By working together,” Schmader said, “we’re starting to introduce Portland as a destination for this kind of vessel.”
The ship is expected to go back in the water next week and leave Portland Yacht Services by the end of June before setting sail for Connecticut, with stops next month in New London, New Haven and Mystic Seaport.
Bailey, the captain, said the ship will go to Puerto Rico in August to take part in the taping of a new NBC series, “Crossbones,” in which John Malkovich is to play the pirate Blackbeard.
The television series provides another Maine connection to the ship. “Crossbones” is based on “The Republic of Pirates,” a book by Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Colin Woodard.
Belanger said the television contract “will be very helpful to the Amistad financially.”
Urban, however, isn’t moved by that prospect.
“I don’t care about John Malkovich,” she said. “I care if you filed your (Internal Revenue Service Form) 990.”
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: