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La Salle ship replica embarks in Matagorda Bay (Video)

By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Dec. 17, 2012 at 6:17 a.m.
Updated Dec. 18, 2012 at 6:18 a.m.

PALACIOS - La Petite Belle moved slowly toward the water, its bulk of brightly painted fiberglass hefted by travel lifts that cradled the boat securely as it rumbled forward.

Ted Riccio, the project manager, trailed along behind the boat, holding a line to keep it from trailing on the ground.

"It's pretty exciting," Riccio said. "You're looking at the product of more than 2,000 hours of work."

For years, Riccio and construction manager Barney Gulley, have been building this boat, a half-sized replica of the flagship vessel that French explorer Robert de La Salle sailed on, which sank in 1686.

They still have work to do, but Friday the boat was launched into the waters of Matagorda Bay.

Gulley and Riccio hope the project will become a tourist attraction that will draw people to their sleepy little coastal town. They are also doing this to fulfill the dreams of a friend, Roberta Ripke.

The project started in 2002, an idea of Ripke's, the head of the Palacios Area Project.

She and the rest of the town residents had watched with excitement as the wreck of La Salle's barque ship La Belle was unearthed from the muck it was embedded in on the floor of Matagorda Bay.

Riccio said Ripke was frustrated after the wreck was discovered and all of the artifacts were taken from the museum.

"This was her brainchild. After the La Belle was discovered out there in the bay, all of the artifacts went somewhere else. We didn't even get a bead from that ship for our museum," Riccio said.

The vessel, a type of square-rigged sailing vessel called a barque longue, was the French explorer's flagship vessel when he arrived on the Texas coast in 1684.

La Salle was on a mission to explore the Gulf coast and establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, but the explorer was murdered and La Belle sank in 1686 to the bottom of the bay where it settled, forgotten, until state archaeologists unearthed the ship in 1995.

Ripke watched as the artifacts from the ship were dispersed, and she became determined to claim a piece of the story for the town. They would build their own version of the ship.

They began constructing the hull of the ship in 2002, but the project floundered for a time until Riccio and Gulley became determined to see it through.

Once it is completed, the ship will be used in a documentary on La Salle being filmed by Bill Millet. Though the ship is smaller than the original, Millet said he'll use tricks of the camera to make it look like the real thing.

But all of that will take place once it has been completed. Gulley said they still have to add a mast to the 30-foot-long vessel and the sails and rigging that would have been on the ship. The cannons that Riccio's son crafted will be installed in the boat by Christmas, Riccio said.

They painted the hull brown with black and yellow trim and ordered a white and yellow fleur-de-lis flag, the symbol of the French monarchy, like the one sailors likely would have had on the ship when it sank.

As the boat eased into the water, Ted Riccio's wife, Martha Riccio, smiled as she snapped pictures, noting how proud Ripke would have been to see this day.

Because Ripke died of cancer six months ago, she never got to see the La Petite Belle completed, she said.

"This is all because of Roberta, and she wanted to see it through. Roberta would have been proud of this. She'd be happy with this moment," Martha Riccio said.



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