‘Western Union’ back in the water

The last tall ship assembled in Key West, the 69-year-old schooner Western Union, is once again carrying passengers on sunset sailing excursions.

Backed by a local grassroots organization formed to restore, maintain and operate the historic vessel as a maritime museum, the 130-foot Western Union recently underwent surveys and repairs necessary for its Coast Guard recertification.

In July, the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society began offering nightly sunset sailing excursions on the vessel. Passengers depart one hour before sunset, cruise past Mallory Square and watch the sun sinking into the Atlantic.

Launched in 1939, Western Union is the last surviving example of a traditional American coasting schooner. It served the Western Union Telegraph Co. for 35 years and is believed to be the world’s only surviving sailing cable ship, according to local maritime historians.

Though it spent 10 years as a Key West tour vessel, maintenance and renovation costs forced previous owners to cease operations. In late 2007, they donated it to the society on the condition that it be restored and remain in Key West.

“People in Key West love the Western Union and they know it’s supposed to be here,” said Theo Glorie, founder and board member of the society.

While the historic schooner has already undergone the initial restoration needed to resume operation, more work is required to ensure long-term preservation. The Florida Keys tourism council recently agreed to provide more than $400,000 toward the restoration effort, and the society is spearheading a campaign to raise additional funds needed for the project.

“She is the sole remaining sailing representative of the Key West maritime past,” board member Guy deBoer said of Western Union. “Hopefully, in the next 2-3 years the boat will be completely restored and will be a beautiful fixture here.”

The vessel is available for private charters and weddings, and there are plans for the Western Union to begin offering day sails and stargazing excursions this fall.

Schooner Western Union’s sunset sails depart from a dock adjacent to the Schooner Wharf Bar at 202 William St. in Key West’s Historic Seaport. Tickets are $35 per person for adults and $12 per child age 4-12. For boarding times, reservations and ticketing, call 292-1766. For more information go to www.schoonerwestern