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Galveston Historical Foundation

ELISSA: Living History

VOLUNTEERS THAT BECOME FAMILY

BY ELISABETH CARROLL PARKS, #GALVESTONHISTORY CONTRIBUTOR

History is routinely confined to books or museums. It’s often best understood that way, from an invested but safe distance, especially when it comes to the rights, health, and treatment of people and places.

But sometimes, we need history to come alive. We crave interactions that we can touch and smell, and seek out experiences that are not mere recreations in controlled spaces, but adventures that are both historically accurate and unpredictable.

Thankfully, we know history can break back out into the world to walk, run, or sail among us, because we know the tall ship ELISSA.

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Built in 1877 in Scotland, ELISSA sailed under several flags including those of Norway and Sweden, before she was sold to Finland in 1930. Almost three decades later, ELISSA was found in Greece, where she sat in a scrap yard in Piraeus Harbor––until Galveston Historical Foundation stepped in.

In 1979, GHF brought the ship––a square-rigged iron barque––to the Texas Gulf Coast, determined to restore her. Through the hard work and constant devotion of volunteers, ELISSA was transformed into the floating museum and sailable vessel she is today. She made her public debut in 1982. In 2005, the Texas Legislature named ELISSA the official tall ship of Texas.

ELISSA in the Greek shipyard.

Every year, more than 30,000 visitors board ELISSA in the Galveston Historic Seaport. One of only three ships of her ilk still sailing today, ELISSA also makes day trips and voyages, staffed by expert teams of experienced officers and well-trained crews of volunteers.

One of those volunteers is Jessica Fazio, a Houston-based project manager in oil and gas who serves as an ELISSA mast captain. Jessica is one of six mast captains in the ELISSA crew. “We are essentially middle management,” she says with a laugh. “The mast captains are the layer between the captain and officers and the general crew. On our training days, we are the ones who are responsible for teaching the general crew and guiding our instructors as they do the same, showing our volunteers how to do everything from maintenance and taking care of the boat to make sure she’s in good shape, to actually learning how to sail her.”

For Jessica, ELISSA has always loomed large. Her grandparents were part of the early group of volunteers that readied ELISSA for the public in the late 70s and early 80s. “I’m from Beaumont, and ELISSA did a voyage there,” Jessica says. “My grandparents were volunteering and being docents, so I got to walk through the boat with my grandfather. I was five.” She pauses and smiles, adding, “So I’ve known about her my whole life.”

What does Jessica remember about the experience? In addition to getting a sneak peak into the ship’s spaces that are typically off limits to the public, Jessica says ELISSA’s size shocked her. “As a five-year-old, I thought the boat was huge,” she says. “I’d never seen anything that big.”

setting the spanker sail
ELISSA Sail Training Program

Years later, Jessica was living in Houston. The Tall Ships Festival arrived in Galveston in 2018, and she and a friend made the trek down I-45. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. I’m a dummy. ELISSA has a sail training program––why am I not doing this?’” Jessica says. “And that was it. I joined that summer, and I’ve been with the ELISSA ever since.”

In April 2023, Jessica and her shipmates were preparing for ELISSA’s first voyage from port to port since 2018. It was Jessica’s first voyage, ever. Asked what she was looking forward to most, Jessica didn’t hesitate. “I really, really love getting underway––getting out into open water and just getting to actually sail the boat,” she says. “You’re setting up the boat to do what the boat does best. It’s hard to describe––when you set the boat and you let her sail. It’s just an incredible feeling, and you get to enjoy it.”

ELISSA relies on a captain, chief mate, second mate, third mate, and cook––all paid officers who staff the vessel whether it’s a day trip or a voyage. For the voyage, the crew was also placed into three different watch groups. “We have a watch system because at some point, you have to sleep, and you can’t all go to sleep at once because the boat’s got to keep going,” Jessica says. “So we are split into three different groups. You will have one watch on duty, one watch on standby, and one watch that’s completely off. It rotates every handful of hours.”

ELISSA daysailsUnlike day trips, the crew is responsible for all three masts instead of just one assigned mast. The mast captains like Jessica become watch captains, and are charged with carrying out orders from the officer who has command of the boat. “On day sails, each mast captain has a mast, so there are quite a few more people––and you only take care of the mast you’re on,” Jessica says. “A voyage is a little different. It’ll be a lot of fun.”

ELISSA’s voyage from Galveston to St. Petersburg, Florida, spanned seven days. The trip served as a beautiful reminder of the vessel’s vibrancy. “ELISSA is a piece of living history––she’s not a replica,” Jessica says. “She is an original, not a stagnant museum. She’s actually still in use. So, you can go to an arts museum or a natural history museum, and they change exhibits––and it’s always cool. But this is something you can touch––something you can be a part of.”

You come for the boat. You stay for the crew. – Jessica Fazio

ELISSA’s volunteers come from everywhere. Eighteen-year-olds and 90-year-olds, Starbucks baristas and NASA scientists, all work alongside one another. Volunteers work and train for a minimum of 20 Saturdays a year––but most do far more. To many, the voyage was the highly anticipated culmination of thousands of hours of practice. “It’s somewhere we can all come and have common ground and enjoy history and nature,” Jessica says. “We’re out in the elements––the sun, the wind, we have to deal with the water. We get to be outside, enjoying the world and a piece of history together.”

For volunteers like Jessica, the experiences forge a bond that goes deeper than sailing. “The shirt I’m wearing today is one of our crew shirts from last year. It says: ‘You come for the boat. You stay for the crew,’” Jessica says. “It’s really true. We jokingly say it, but it’s the truth: You end up with a group of people who aren’t just your friends. They become your family.”

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Jana Sutton
Jana Sutton
1 year ago

I LOVE this!! Jessica has a true love for sailing and the Elissa. I’ve known her for many years, and I love how she puts her whole heart into this and everything she does. ❤️ So proud of you and happy for you, sister!

David shick
David shick
1 year ago

I’d like to know about the trip in April when you can go aboard an join them a have a sack lunch. I’m 73 an would love to go with my wife and family

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