The story of Unicorn

Ship’s History 

A type VII C U-boat surfaces

Our story begins in the midst of the Second World War.  A story of redemption arising from some of the darkest days in world history.  Arguably the greatest threat to the allied war effort were the infamous wolf packs.  U-boats, operated by the German Kreigsmarine conducting coordinated hunts, preying on allied shipping throughout the Atlantic, Mediterranean, North Sea, into the Pacific and even within the sheltered inland waters of the Chesapeake Bay.  Their effect was devistating, sending millions of tons of allied shipping to the deep, killing between 60,000 and 100,000 sailors and depriving frontline troops of vital food, supplies, fuel oil, ammunition and equipment.  The indirect cost in lives and treasure as result of delaying allied victory is immeasurable.

A torpedo from a German U-boat strikes a merchant vessel, seen through the periscope.

With the serrender of Nazi Germany to allied forces in May of 1945, the long process of healing, and the rehabilitation of an entire generation begins.  Though the allies had defeated the Third Reich , the next threat, from an enemy which would prove to be even more deadly had arisen.  The Cold War was on the horizon even before WWII had ended and the Soviet Union was already overshadowing victory.  The U-boat fleet was condemned and destroyed en mass in an effort to keep such an asset from falling into the hands of yet another tyrant. Hundreds of vessels were scuttled, bombed or torpedoed in deep water beyond the reach of salvage crews.

U-175 sinking on 17 April 1943 after sustaining damage from depth charges and artillary fire from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Spencer killing 13 of her crew of 54 in position 47.53N 22.04W

Among the fleet of the Kreigsmarine, a few vessels, due to damage sustained in previous weeks, were not considered sea worthy enough to haul out to deep water.  Others were unfinished and had yet to be commissioned.  These few were destined to be spared the fate of slow decay in the lightless depths, thousands of feet below the surface.  As part of war reparations to the Netherlands, these surrendered U-boats were delivered to the shipyards of Holland to be broken up and transformed.  They were thus given a second life, a new and honorable purpose.

Officers of the Kreigsmarine inspect a U-boat and her crew in 1941

In the shipyard De Vooruitgang at Gouwsluis, Alphen aan den Rijn, one of these steel monsters was re-fashioned into a North Sea fishing trawler for Dutch owners Gebr. Vlaming & L. Bremer from the Island of Texel.  She was launched in 1947 under the name Deo Volente I with the fleet number of TX 11.  Her given name, Deo Volente I, meaning God Willing, implies that the fishermen who owned her were most likely, conservative Dutch reformed Christians.

Deo Volente I, 1947

With her locomotive style 1500 horsepower diesel engine, this strong vessel trawled the North Atlantic’s fishing grounds for over 30 years with various owners.  During this time she fished under other names such as Pieter Andre, vessel number HD 35 in the late 1960’s (owner L.R. de Boer named her after his two sons).  Under owners W. & J. Van der Veen she was called Willem Senior, vessel number WR 235 in the early 1970’s.

When her fishing days were over, she was acquired by a Dutch skipper and his wife, Pieter and Agnes Kaptein of Hoorn. By 1979 she had been converted into a sailing ship and renamed her Eenhoorn or “one horn”, Dutch for Unicorn. As Eenhoorn she sailed the Mediterranean until 1986.  Eenhoorn was then sold to Mr. Morris Henson who registered the vessel in Jersey under the anglicized name of Unicorn.  Her hull was painted black, retaining the white rail and gunwale stripes. Under her British flag, Henson sailed Unicorn out of the West Indies, Caribbean and Spanish coast as a charter vessel and treasure seeker.

Eenhoorn in the early 1980s after her conversion to a charter schooner

The early-90’s brought yet another direction for Unicorn. Curtis and Lettie Ciszek, an American couple from Bainbridge Island, Washington purchased the vessel from the ailing Henson. After a refit, they sailed the Unicorn with their four children and a crew to Grenada where she chartered out of Secret Harbour.

In 1995, on her way to her second Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race, Unicorn collided with the ocean-going chemical tanker Chilibar. She was towed to Norfolk by the sailing tugantine Norfolk Rebel. Estimated repairs to the hull were higher than the insured value and the schooner was for sale once again.

True North of Toronto

Purchased by a Canadian couple who had a dream of their own, the Unicorn was converted into a Canadian certified sail training vessel. Under Captain Prothero’s ownership and management, the ship went through a re-fitting of the hull, rig and power and in 1997 she was christened with a new name, True North of Toronto.

True North provided hundreds of trainees of all ages the opportunity to sail the Great Lakes, the East Coast of North America and the Caribbean. It was also at this time that the vessel became a member of the American Sail Training Association and began appearing with the ASTA fleet at port festivals throughout the Great Lakes.

In the fall of 1999, True North was acquired by Dawn and Jonathan (Jay) Santamaria of Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Dawn and Jay, along with their four daughters and their schooner enthusiastically promoted the preservation of traditional maritime life through sail training, tall ship festivals and community involvement.  In December of 2003, a bow to stern refit was completed which took the ship down to her steel ribs.  Upon completion she was rechristened with her original schooner name, Unicorn.

Unicorn proudly shows her colors

In the summer of 2005, Unicorn was granted a Jones Act Waiver to become a United States registered vessel.  She has ever since proudly flown the Stars and Stripes off her stern. This same year, co-owner Dawn Santamaria founded Sisters Under Sail, a not-for-profit on-board leadership program for teenage girls and women.

Sisters Under Sail

Sisters Under Sail and her all-female professional crew chartered Unicorn each summer, sailing New England, Canadian Maritimes and the Great Lakes until 2014 when Sisters Under Sail moved on to other vessels. Dawn and Jay Santamaria, with their youngest daughter preparing for college reluctantly put their beloved Unicorn up for sale in 2014.  Unicorn was hauled for her routine hull inspection in October of 2015 and after addressing all maintenance requirements, she was moved to Haverstraw NY where she remained for almost a year.

In July of 2016, Jason LaBenne, a US Coast Guard retiree, service disabled veteran and Jewish American and Elisa his wife of 10 years began negotiations to give Unicorn a new tack to her mission.  Dawn and Jay Santamaria approved of their plans and reluctantly sent their “fifth daughter” off on another adventure.  Jason and Elisa realized the beginning of their dream when they took possession of Unicorn on 01 September 2016.

Unicorn heading for her new Berth in Hampton Virginia.  Photo credit: Over The Horizon Aerial Imaging

Today Unicorn is being refit, her decks restored and systems updated to meet the needs of guests in her new role as a hospitality venue, charter vessel, a living history exhibit and an inspirational example of the beauty of redemption. This Dutch-built beauty, rich in history, is strong and has a soul all her own.  She will soon sail again with a new passion, mission and a message of hope.  She brings the lore and culture of the days of sail to a new generation in Tidewater and the greater Chesapeake Bay with a special focus on our wounded warriors, veterans and their families.

If you would like to get involved with Unicorn’s new mission, please let us know by contacting us here!