I don’t have a “hobby.” Not a hobby in the classic sense of collecting stamps, knitting sweaters out of dog hair or playing with model trains in my basement the way my grandfather did. He didn’t have the opportunity to binge watch Breaking Bad with a bag of Cheetos like I do, so there’s no surprise he whiled away the long Cotuit winters in the 1940s and 50s making ship models and reading novels while listening to the same radio that brought him the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He and my grandmother gave me a taste for model ship building, a pastime my grandmother let me assist her with when I was ten years old and she built a scale model of the Grand Banks schooner the Bluenose after being widowed and needing — I assume — something to get her mind on other things.
Cotuit in 1930s through the 1950s was doubtlessly a very quiet village in the wintertime, and other than playing bridge with friends, volunteering at the church, or attending the monthly meeting of the Masons at the Mariner’s Lodge, there wasn’t a lot to do in the evening other than listen to the radio and read. And read they did. Television wasn’t on the scene so books filled the hours. Books and making models.
My grandfather and father collaborated on a model of the launch of the Bounty, the open boat which Captain Bligh and his sympathizers were set adrift in by Fletcher Christian in 1789, and then, against all apparent odds, successfully sailed 3,500 nautical miles to the Dutch Indies with some loyal crew lost to attacks by hostile islanders along the way. That model was preserved in a glass case and hung on the walls of the living room next to the old Captain’s navy saber, and I studied it for hours after reading Nordoff and Hall’s trilogy about the Mutiny in grade school.
My father built model airplanes. I remember him building a seaplane when he was a student at Harvard Business School. Impulsive, he decided to test the engine at Loop Beach in Cotuit without installing the radios needed to fly it; he fueled it, fired it up, and for some strange reason set it free to take off and successfully fly off towards Portugal to the east, never to be seen again. So I’ve always been around xActo knives and T-pins and strips of basswood.
This past winter My youngest son expressed an interest in making a plastic model of an American battleship, the USS New Jersey. He’s still working on it, learning how to wield an airbrush and assemble the thing correctly and I have no doubts it will be a magnificent thing when he finishes it. But something nagged at me, something that wanted to work with wood, so I went online and searched for a modest project that I had some connection to; e.g. something to do with whaling because of my Great-great grandfather’s stint aboard the Edgartown whaling ship the Massachusetts from the 1850s until the Civil War.
There are two approaches to wooden ship models. One is to shape a miniature version of the original ship’s hull out of a roughly pre-formed piece of wood. The second, which I have never tried but seems to the most authentic and aligned to actual boat building is to build the hull over a frame with strips of wood like actual planking and ribs. I looked for a whaling ship model — the Massachusetts was built in Mattapoisset and rigged as a bark and the closest thing I could find was a model of the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining whaling ship which is maintained and berthed at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut.
I remember from watching my grandmother build the Bluenose that the real challenge in model shipbuilding lies in the rigging of the masts and spars, an utter rat’s nest of thread and tiny deadeyes that involves the patience of Buddha and fingers like a pickpocket’s, I knew if I went big I’d have a project languishing around for years, so I decided to focus on a smaller boat, one without a lot of sails like royal top gallants and spankers and studding staysails, but a simple small boat or sloop.
I picked a New Bedford whale boat, the iconic pulling boat used to hunt, harpoon and kill whales for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the most produced style of wooden boat in the world, with an estimated 60,000 built to supply the whaling fleets of New England, only a handful of original examples exist today, partially because they endured a lot of abuse and rough use and were to built be cheap and only survive the two- to three-year voyage to the Pacific. This Currier & Ives print sort of sums up the fate of a lot of these double-ended sail/row boats suffered.
So I bought a kit on Amazon. It arrived in a box. A lot of wood, a little box of hardware and thread, and a roll of plans. I gathered all my grandparent’s boat building tools, cleared a space on the dining room table, and got to work.
I was unaware the kit was rated an “advanced” project. I figured since it didn’t have a mast or any rigging it would be easy. Then I started planking the hull and became very pessimistic.
Anyway, after four or six hundred hours of carvings, gluing and sanding (sandpaper is the most used tool of all). It started to come together.
I put in ribs, the cockpit ceiling, I made a centerboard trunk, and by March I had a hull. But I realized I had a serious amount of work left before I would end up with something that resembled the real thing like theseboats at Mystic Seaport:
As spring arrived and the weather improved my motivation started to flag and the project went dormant. But I picked away at it over time. Fashioning harpoons, oars, barrels, buckets and tubs.
I looked at the little bundle of glue and sticks and paint, sighed, and then smiled and said, “You know something? You’re right.”
So I put on a final sprint and by the eve of the wedding last weekend (July 22, 2017) it was ready to be given away.
I guess I can always build another some day, it was a lot of fun….very meditative and satisfying. But it does make me glad to stick it on the mantle until the picture of the old Captain and my grandfather and realize it meant something after all.