MYSTIC, Conn. — Adzes, planes, chisels, and mallets play an age-old chorus inside a 46-foot-high tent nicknamed “the mailbox” at the edge of the Mystic River, where white oak from Massachusetts and live oak from Georgia are reshaped and fitted on a curved wooden frame.
The work is taking form as a 17th-century English merchant ship, the Mayflower II, which is reemerging — piece by meticulous piece — in a bow-to-stern restoration to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World in 1620.
“This is where you and 101 of your closest friends would have been for 66 days,” said Whit Perry, co-leader of the project, with a chuckle as he surveyed the work at Mystic Seaport. “The Mayflower was just a rented U-Haul to bring cargo to the New World. It just so happened this cargo was self-loading.”
Of course, the original Mayflower, which carried 102 passengers and a crew of about 30 men, is among history’s most famous ships. And its aging replica, the Mayflower II, has welcomed 25 million visitors since it arrived in Plymouth in 1957 as a gift from the British for American solidarity and sacrifice during World War II.
Plimoth Plantation, the living-history museum where Perry is director of maritime preservation and operations, wants the Mayflower II to survive for at least 60 more years. With that goal, it has embarked on an $11.2 million project to rebuild the ship from the ground up.
The end is on the horizon.
Two dozen shipwrights and other workers have turned the Mayflower II into a beehive of dusty activity as they lay the decks, fit the framing, and do the countless other tasks to make the ship seaworthy again.
The plan is to finish in 2019.
Perry has worked with wooden boats for more than 40 years, but this project —
a partnership between Plimoth Plantation and the Mystic Seaport Museum — presents challenges that few 21st-century shipwrights will ever encounter.
“I spend a lot of time in the woods marking trees.” said Perry, an amiable 56-year-old from North Andover. “We take the wood from tree to sea.”
There’s white oak from New Salem, near the Quabbin Reservoir, that is used for framing. There’s dense, rot-resistant live oak from the Deep South that’s used for the “knees” that support the decks. And there are knot-free 40-foot-long boards cut from the Danish royal forest that supply planking.
“They might never see this kind of oak again,” Perry said of his crew, marveling at the beautiful wood from Denmark.
Plimoth Plantation brought the job to Mystic Seaport, the nation’s largest maritime museum, because of its working shipyard and the wooden restoration skills that have been passed down there for generations.
“We’ve always been a mecca for this kind of work,” said Quentin Snediker, director of the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard in Mystic. “We’re treating this vessel as if it were an historical object.”
And so it is. The Mayflower II, built in England from 1955 to 1957, is considered one of the first large reproductions of a historical wooden ship in America. Replicas of other ships have followed, but the Mayflower II pioneered the practice. At the time, even sailing the 106-foot vessel across the ocean to Plymouth was thought to be risky.
The three-masted, square-rigged ship is actually an educated guess of how the original Mayflower looked. Naval architect William Avery Baker, who capped his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, designed Mayflower II based on what maritime historians like himself knew of the English traders of the early 1600s.
There were no blueprints, no remains of a ship scrapped three centuries earlier. But what Baker imagined is considered close to the vessel that carried the first permanent English settlers to America.
“Baker had an idea of what a 17th-century merchant vessel looked like,” Perry said. “But he didn’t know if it was a Ford, a Dodge, or a Chevy.”
But the years have taken their toll on Mayflower II, and museum officials realized the ship could not survive much longer without an overhaul. It’s painstaking work, for which only the passionate need apply.
“You learn something every time you pick up a piece of wood. Very little of it is straight or square,” said Snediker, whose white beard gives him the look of a whaling captain. “I think of this as a collaborative sculpture. There was science in this design.”
The restoration project began in earnest during two successive winters, beginning in 2014-15 when Mayflower II was towed to Mystic to assess the damage. The ship has remained in Connecticut continuously since November 2016.
When the work is finished, about 70 percent of Mayflower II will be new, but in keeping with the Interior Department’s standards for historic preservation.
In the meantime, Plimoth Plantation remains $3 million short of its fund-raising goal for the project, which includes the restoration of the Mayflower II and its landing boat, plus a long-term maintenance fund, said Kate Sheehan, spokeswoman for the organization.
The work continues partly by putting old skills into new hands.
Mike Brittan, 39, left behind a stressful job in corporate law to pick up the tools of this trade. His eyes flashed bright when he talked about the satisfaction of this work.
“I like being able to step back at the end of the day and seeing something tangible,” said Brittan, who had an epiphany after passing a boatyard in Annapolis, Md. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, people actually do this for a living.’ It never occurred to me that this was a profession.”
Soon afterward, Brittan was studying at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I., where he launched a new career.
“I don’t have bad days here,” he said, flashing a wide smile.
Neither does Greg See, a 38-year-old shipwright from nearby Hopkinton, R.I.
“I like the physical work, but I also like the practical challenge of how to put it together,” See said. “You learn how they did it, and you also feel part of history.”
Contact Brian MacQuarrie at firstname.lastname@example.org.