A new non-profit called Friends of Odyssey was formed late last winter with the sole purpose of trying to save the Sea Scout Ship 190 (SSS 190) program and the aging wooden Sparkman & Stephens sailboat called Odyssey.

It’s a history they and many others feel is worth saving.

Known as Tacoma’s tall ship, Odyssey has been a well-known sight on the waterfront there since her arrival in the late 1970s. That was, until Covid shut the program down and her 105-foot Sitka spruce mainmast had to be retired. Last year careful inspections revealed compromised sections of wood, increasing the problem twofold since the Odyssey organization depended on its charter season for cash flow, and the 90-foot vessel needs a mainmast to sail.   

Built in 1938 in New York’s Nevins Shipyard for Barbara Henry, a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Odyssey was requisitioned by the US Navy during WWII, where she would continue to serve over the next four decades. Used in a number of naval initiatives that included underwater sonar and radar, marine surveying, dolphin training, as well as entertaining, and even racing on their behalf, Odyssey eventually wound up in disrepair and in the hands of anyone willing to take her on.

Odyssey brand new in 1938, New York.

That’s where the Tacoma Sea Scouts came in, and according to legend, bought the ship for one dollar.  

After much time and many dollars spent bringing her back to life, Odyssey began a new chapter as a segment of Boys Scouts of America Pacific Harbors Council, running as an independent training vessel for the SSS Odyssey coed youth program. 

Led by licensed captains as a small passenger vessel, she soon harkened back to her racing days with her crew of 14- to 21-years-olds. In the early 1990s, and well after, Odyssey could be found participating in numerous yacht races like Swiftsure, and other wooden boat races between Washington and Canada as well as festivals like the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend. 

From weekenders to Canada, and sailing guests on charters to the San Juan Islands and all over Puget Sound, youth gain lessons in leadership, and a multitude of real-world skills—all this and more, experienced through the unique art of sailing.

“These young people are given adult responsibilities in an environment that is guided by adults,” says founding Board President, alumni parent, and former Odyssey youth leader, Shana Curd. “There are very few areas in life where teens are given this kind of responsibility and told ‘we believe in you, we trust you, you’ve got this, we’re here to support you.’ That’s what makes it so fantastic.”  

Mast or no mast, with the program back open, Odyssey consistently passing all current USCG inspections, and new Sea Scouts joining all the while, SSS 190 continues to train on the historic vessel while under the operation of its marine engine, and utilizing small boats for sail training.

Odyssey without her main mast at the 2022 Daffodil Marine Parade in Tacoma. (Photo byRalph Hitz.)

“It’s a great group of youth,” says Dr. Eric Kiesel, longtime volunteer, Odyssey captain and committee member. “It’s fun watching them learn, and seeing that lightbulb come on when they really begin to understand what you’re talking about.” 

Facing challenges, making mistakes and learning how to correct them as they grow in confidence are just a few of the lessons being learned by youth as they become the next generation of leaders and mariners.  

“I love everything about the ocean, but having the opportunity to go out and enjoy all Puget Sound has to offer, with the most amazing second family I could hope for, while learning skills conventional school can’t come close to teaching you — easily the most incredible thing I’ve ever been a part of,” says SSS 190 youth crewman, CG. 

Members of SSS 190 crew. (Photo by Emily Molina.)

Although some may say investing in an old wooden ship isn’t worth it, with youth as their beacon and a volunteer team with first-hand knowledge of the kind of impacts such a program can have on them and countless others, the ‘Friends of Odyssey’ feels differently. It makes up the very foundation they are built on. 

Together, with a weather eye on the horizon, they have a series of fundraising goals underway, not only to protect the Odyssey legacy, but to hold onto the ships 84 years’ worth of maritime and naval history.  First and foremost, the group is working to fund the purchase of wood needed and to pay shipwrights versed in historic vessel preservation to construct the new main mast and get Odyssey sailing again. 

Secondly, with charters still on hold, they continue seeking capital for the sustainability of the ship and program while looking ahead to dry-dock this winter, ongoing restoration, and a time when a replacement vessel becomes absolutely necessary. 

Odyssey gives our youth a much-needed platform where they can take risks, learn from their mistakes, and grow,” says Curd. “Besides grasping a deep appreciation of all that came before them throughout the ship’s vast history, they come to the realization that they can do hard things, and there’s no telling where that may lead them.” 

Help Friends of Odyssey keep the one-of-the-kind youth program and Tacoma’s tall ship, Odyssey afloat for future generations with a tax-deductible donation here, or mail to: Friends of Odyssey: 748 Market Street Unit #91, Tacoma, WA 98402.