At mystic seaport, an ancient craft continues to be taught, and 400 years later, is helping to restore the Mayflower II.
We’ll take the easy way up,” says Matthew Barnes, as I follow the 34-year-old lead shipwright up the stairs to the top of a wooden scaffold overlooking the Mystic River. A wooden door controlled by a pulley closes solidly behind us as we step into “The Mailbox,” a nickname the shipwrights have given to the temporary structure erected in the back of the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.
Inside, a full-scale replica of the Mayflower, the Dutch cargo ship that brought the Pilgrims to the New World, is being restored to her former glory.
Moments before, Barnes and I were chatting in the ship’s bowels, the exposed futtocks—timbers that make up the framing structure—giving it the appearance of a large, cavernous ribcage. Between the cries of saws slicing into wood, I feel the magnitude of the project above me, under me, all around me, this being a sacred place of worship to the old ways of doing things. It’s a place where shipwright apprentices learn the craft directly from masters, who were taught the craft from masters before them—and so on, ad infinitum. Hopefully.
Work on the 60-year-old Mayflower II has been ongoing year-round since 2016; even in the middle of winter when I visited. Outside, sawdust mixes with snow as a forklift moves logs and shaped timbers around the shipyard. Stationed here and there around The Mailbox are space heaters, but as we talk I can still see my breath.
Barnes sports a trimmed black beard and a stylish haircut. He also looks like he picks up heavy timber all day. I ask him if he ever thought he would be restoring the Mayflower.
“No, absolutely not. I got hired five years ago for six months to help with the Morgan, and now I’m leading this project,” he adds, smiling. (The Morgan being the Charles W. Morgan—the oldest commercial ship still afloat. Only the USS Constitution, in Boston, is older.)
At the shipyard, the Mayflower II is undergoing a multi-year restoration commissioned by the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This is unusual. Typically, the shipyard is responsible for the preservation and maintenance of its collection of more than 500 historic watercraft; the largest in the country.
Up on her decks, I see the Mayflower II from a different perspective. In the main hatch, where dunnage would have been loaded for the Pilgrim’s voyage, shipwrights have pulled up parts of the deck, which was rotted, and are at work installing large structural components. Barnes tells me by 2019, they will have finished restoring about 60 percent of the original—over 100,000 board feet, or almost 19 miles if stacked end over end.
“At a certain level you can restore an entire ship, but you want to keep some of the soul of the original—and we have a certain timeline and budgets we’re working around.”
That includes having the vessel ready well before 2020, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflowerand the founding of Plymouth Colony.
To accomplish this goal, 27 shipwrights at various stages of mastery are working directly on the Mayflower II. Most of them have been brought on just for this project. Some are apprentices learning from master shipwrights.
Says Barnes, “It’s really the only way to know how to do it. It’s a technique and it’s working side-by-side with these people; it’s how I’ve learned.”
As a local, Barnes grew up visiting Mystic Seaport on field trips. A graduate of the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island, Barnes has over 22 years of restoration under his belt. But just like the timber they use—most of it live oak, which comes from as far afield as Louisiana and Denmark—these craftsmen come from all over to learn the trade.
The shipyard employs only five full-time shipwrights, which means if another project doesn’t come along, many will have to find work elsewhere. But Barnes and Director of Communications Dan McFadden are hopeful. “Part of the mission here is keeping the skills going of historic restoration,” says McFadden. “People will go on to other jobs beyond this, but we feel we’ve done our role in furthering the craft.”
Mystic Seaport runs a seasonal marina throughout spring, summer and fall for transient boaters. With the slip comes free admission to the museum. mysticseaport.org