Sultana loaded and heading to the launch site. Photo by Lucien Neimeyer courtesy of Sultana Education Foundation.

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the launch of the Sultana.

That Saturday in 2001 could not have been more picture perfect – clear, nearly cloudless skies and almost balmy weather. In short, it was a glorious day when the vessel, a replica of the 18th century brigantine Sultana, christened in 1768, was lifted off its waterside cradle and placed in the Chester River. The launch production drew large crowds. Every inch of waterfront was filled with people wanting to see a piece of history in the making.

I often return in my mind’s eye to the morning of Friday, March 23, 2001 – the day when the power was shut down and downtown residents and workers poured onto the sidewalks to watch the vessel’s progress from its birthplace at Cannon and Mill Streets along South Cross and down High Street to the waterfront.

Sultana ready at the Foot of High Street. Photo by Lucien Niemeyer courtesy of Sultana Education Foundation.

The route to river required turning off power downtown to clear overhead lines from the path. Once the power went off and work halted that morning, my staff and I walked down from the office on Church Alley to the corner of High and Court Streets where I took up a spot with Stam’s Hall behind me. The crowds along the streets were easily five people deep and there was another layer of youth watching from atop shoulders.

Drew McMullen, Sultana Education Foundation president, and boatwright John Swain had been working towards that day since they had met in 1998. The financing and construction effort was momentous. It literally took a village. By March 2001, the avid public anticipation was at a high level after following the Sultana dream to the launch weekend reality.

Lift off. Photo by Lucien Niemeyer courtesy of Sultana Education Foundation.

The Sultana was launched and its mast seated into placed that day. The vessel’s rigging and sails followed. It has served as Chestertown’s traveling ambassador since then. At home, the Sultana Education Foundation has delivered on its promise of a living classroom that has introduced history and the environment to two decades of elementary school age children. The impact of the Sultana is easily measured by the fact that since onset of COVID-19 shutdowns gone is the excited banter of students as the toured our streets. We sorely missed Downrigging Festival 2020-hopefully just this once.

Sultana meets crane. Photo by Steve Atkinson.

The Sultana and the people of Chestertown have developed a symbiotic relationship over the past two decades. The town embraced this idea-a nautical living history project for a colonial riverfront town. The ship has set a tone for drivers crossing the Chester River Bridge or upriver to the port. Chestertown has provided a great incubator. The Sultana Education Foundation flourished and invested in the community demonstrated in the Sultana Education Center at Cross and Cannon Streets. The town’s long-term commitment is most singularly demonstrated in its acquisition and renovation of the marina property that has provided permanent berths for Sultana and other historic vessels of the Chester River.

Sultana readies to meet the Chester River. Photo by Lucien Niemeyer courtesy of Sultana Education Foundation.

“That day was the culmination of tens of thousands of hours of work by hundreds and hundreds of people–but most notably builder John Swain who put everything he had into the project,” Drew McMullen recalled for The Kent Pilot. “Twenty years later, the results of that hard work are evident around town and around the Chesapeake. More than 100,000 students — a couple generations worth from regional schools – have now sailed on Sultana’s decks.”

“The organization the building of Sultana helped create – the Sultana Education Foundation – has grown beyond anything we could have imagined in 2001 and now serves tens of thousands of students, teachers and families around the Chesapeake. Our only regret is that we can’t mark the occasion in the way we’re accustomed to – with a big event. Hopefully we can rectify this at our Downrigging Weekend Festival this fall which will celebrate the schooner SULTANA’s 20th operating season.”

Happy 20th Anniversary, Sultana.

The Kent Pilot