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Is this the final chapter?

September 25, 2014
Joyce Schenk , Westfield Republican

The date was August 18, 1985.

Excited crowds stood three deep along the north edge of Chautauqua Lake just to be a part of this historic event.

At the center of the festivities, tugging restlessly at her lines was the magnificent Sea Lion. The three-masted, square-rigged sailing vessel, a careful replica of a 16th Century British ship, had been handcrafted by dedicated ship builders led by Mayville's Ernie Cowan.

This perfect August day would mark the Sea Lion's official commissioning.

On the platform, Cowan stood with fellow shipwrights Pat Foster and Stan Drake. The three were at attention beside the ship's crew, led by Captain John Marsh. All were dressed in period costume, lending an air of authenticity to the proceedings. Two of these proud crewmembers were my husband, George, and my son, Tim.

There were speeches and music and the constant clicking of cameras. Everyone wanted to save this unforgettable day.

At last, the lines were taken up and the Sea Lion slid into the waters of the lake. She was surrounded by a flotilla of craft from canoes and rowboats to small yachts, all escorting this vision from the past into deeper waters. For those who witnessed the promising event, it seemed the Sea Lion's future was assured.

Unfortunately, from the beginning, stormy seas plagued the ship. These were not the weather-related kind. Instead they were the type of tumult caused by the forces in control of the unique vessel's fate.

Finally, in the summer of 1988, under the command of Captain Jerry Hewes, the Sea Lion realized her early goal. For the entire season, she carried fortunate passengers and crewmembers on cruises each would remember forever.

Throughout that remarkable season, with billowed sails the majestic ship was a familiar sight moving across the waters of the northern end of the lake. She excited residents with a sense of pride and visitors with a sense of wonder.

But, after that brief period of fulfillment, the Sea Lion's fortunes turned. By the winter of 1989-90, the ship had lost her safe winter berth and was anchored off the Chautauqua Bell Tower, unprotected from the elements. Time and nature began to take their toll.

For a short time in 1990, the ship once again made a limited number of cruises. But, eventually, she was taken from her home in the lake's northern end, and moved to a muddy channel near Jamestown. She was not only lost to those who so deeply cared for her, she was repeatedly vandalized in her out-of-the-way berth.

Eventually, this handcrafted vessel was removed from the water, placed on a truck and taken to Barcelona Harbor.

Sadly, in order to transport the ship, workers unceremoniously cut her aft cabin and forecastle off with chain saws. The once magnificent seagoing icon traveled by flatbed in pieces.

For a time, the ship was moved from Barcelona to Buffalo. There, she was allowed to sink, was eventually raised, and finally, came back to Chautauqua County.

Lately the Sea Lion, now long out of water, has been languishing on land near Barcelona.

In recent weeks, a news item announced that an organization from Virginia has shown interest in acquiring the Sea Lion. If they are successful, she will leave Chautauqua County, perhaps forever, and head south. In Virginia, an ambitious plan, like many before, calls for the ship to be restored.

Will the decisions being made now spell the final chapter for this Chautauqua County treasure?



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