A Maine shipyard has been awarded a $6 million contract to make one of the nation’s oldest fishing vessels seaworthy again.

Boothbay Harbor Shipyard won the bid to restore the Ernestina, a schooner built in 1894 that was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1990 and which serves as the official vessel of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Lauren Feltch, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, confirmed that the contract to restore the Ernestina, which is the oldest surviving Grand Banks fishing schooner and later took explorers to the Arctic, was awarded Wednesday to the Maine shipyard.

“It’s a great project for us,” said Eric Graves, president of the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard. “We’re pretty excited to have her back again. It’s a significant project that doesn’t come along all that often.”

Graves said a tugboat will travel from Maine next month to the State Pier in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the Ernestina’s home port. The tugboat will tow the schooner back to Boothbay Harbor, a voyage that Graves estimates could take up to 30 hours.

Graves said the shipyard, located at 120 Commercial St., worked on the Ernestina twice in the past five years. But the scope of the upcoming restoration will dwarf those maintenance projects, and will require Graves to increase his workforce.

The restoration project won’t be the first time the shipyard has taken on a high-profile project. In 2002, it was hired to restore the bottom planking of the replica ship, HMS Bounty, which was built from scratch and used in the 1962 Hollywood film, “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

In 2006, the shipyard refurbished the Bounty’s bow and topside decking.

Julius Britto, president of the nonprofit Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey Association Inc. (SEMA), said the restored Ernestina will be moored at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay and serve as the school’s sail training ship – much like the schooner Bowdoin serves as the sail training ship for Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Britto said the Ernestina has not set sail on its own in about 10 years.

The vessel is well known in Massachusetts and among the people of Cabo Verde, an island nation spanning an archipelago of 10 volcanic islands in the central Atlantic Ocean. The country, formerly known as Cape Verde, gave the ship to the United States in 1982 and it ended up in Massachusetts, its home state.

The schooner was built at the James and Tarr shipyard in Essex, Massachusetts, over four months in 1894 at a cost of $16,000, according to SEMA’s website.

It was originally named the Effie M. Morrissey after the shipyard owner’s daughter.

In 1926, Bob Bartlett, an Arctic explorer and companion of Robert E. Peary purchased the schooner. Bartlett took the schooner on 20 voyages to the Arctic, documenting the region’s flora and fauna.

After his death in 1946, the schooner was sold to a family in New York City. It was eventually acquired by Capt. Henrique Mendes, who renamed the ship Ernestina after his daughter. Mendes transported immigrants from Cape Verde to the United States for a number of years.

Britto said the restoration effort, which will bring the vessel up to Coast Guard standards, got a huge boost last summer when the Massachusetts Commissioner of Conservation and Recreation confirmed that a pair of private donors matched the state’s commitment to fund the project.

“The Ernestina will sail again” was the headline posted on a story that appeared on SEMA’s website in July. The organization reported that Gerry Lenfest, the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Boston philanthropist Robert J. Hildreth will contribute $2.8 million toward the restoration project. SEMA will pitch in $1 million with the state tossing in $2.5 million.

“Everyone that has been working very hard for this moment should be proud that this vessel, that was built in Massachusetts and returned to us in 1982 as a gift from the people of Cape Verde, will be able to proudly represent the Commonwealth again,” the story said.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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