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September 18, 2013
Article

America's first ship is reimagined, recreated

Volunteers build a new Virginia on shores of Kennebec

by Kris Ferrazza

Volunteers with Maine’s First Ship place the first half of the keelson on the recreated Virginia being built on the Bath waterfront. The original pinnace Virginia was built by colonists at Popham in 1607-08.
Volunteers with Maine’s First Ship place the first half of the keelson on the recreated Virginia being built on the Bath waterfront. The original pinnace Virginia was built by colonists at Popham in 1607-08. KRIS FERRAZZA

BATH — Each day, volunteers recreating the pinnace Virginia walk in the shoes of the settlers, but they dream of the day they will sail in their wake.

Along the Kennebec River, the 51-foot ship is taking shape, as 23 rib-like frames soar toward the roof of the boat shed. Volunteers look like Jonah inside the belly of the beast as they confer and ponder their next move.

Boatbuilding doesn't happen fast, at least not at Maine's First Ship, and the deliberate effort put in over these last several years has brought the group to this point in time where the boat has taken shape and excitement is in the air.

"As people come into the boat shed, the reaction is just an eye-popping 'Wow!'" said Gayla Teague, who manages the finances and publicity for the non-profit group. "The difference is marked. She's got her bones now and she's just beautiful."

The Woolwich woman, along with her husband Tim, are devoted volunteers who share a deep interest and understanding of the history and process surrounding the building of the Virginia. Both speak of the ship with affection, and the colonists who built the original pinnace with respect. (A pinnace is a term used to describe a light boat propelled by sails or oars, often previously used as a tender for merchant and war vessel.)

"Our primary goal is to commemorate the Popham settlers by building Virginia," said Teague. "We want to honor the courage and fortitude of the original settlers."

Those English colonists built the first ship in North America beginning in 1607 and concluding in 1608, more than a decade before the arrival of the Pilgrims. The Virginia crossed the Atlantic at least twice, and supplied the Jamestown colony in 1609 in what may have been a solo crossing.

"After that, she is lost to the historic record,” said Maine's First Ship President Orman Hines. No one knows the fate of Virginia, though the 30-ton pretty pinnace is rumored to have sunk off Ireland.

Hines, who also is treasurer of the Maine Archeological Society, said ongoing studies of Fort St. George continue to reveal truths about life in those times. He added it is unlikely the fate of Virginia ever will be known, however.

WEEKEND WARRIORS
On a summer Saturday morning, volunteers gather in the boat shed and examine the keelson, which when bolted to the keel, will form the spine of the ship. These "weekend warriors" include master shipwright Robert Stevens, Jeremy Blaiklock, Roger Barry, Mark Aukeman, Bruce Brennan, the Teagues and others, including Wesley Blum. Blum, a Bath 17-year-old, has spent several years in the program, earning academic credit at Morse High School.

The volunteers come from all walks of life but all have a common interest in history and wooden boats. They puzzle over problems raised by the logistics of building this boat, and marvel at how hardy adventurers with small numbers and few resources in Colonial times could have accomplished the feat under such harsh conditions.

"We think about it all the time," said Barry, shaking his head.

Stevens, a restoration expert who built the authentic Viking ship Snorri, said he uses his 30-year experience around boatyards to guide the recreation. This Virginia will carry passengers, not stable cargo, so modifications must be made all along the way. He is much admired by the rest of the group, which appreciates his intuition and expertise. They gather around when he arrives to wait to hear the stories he tells, and fondly refer to his anecdotes as "the Monday morning meeting."

But Stevens downplays his role, noting shipbuilding has not evolved much over time.

"Boatbuilding really is a conservative skill," he said. "It changes very slowly."

The boat shed is a magnet for visitors, who drift into the adjacent Bath Freight Shed on this overcast Saturday, peruse displays about the boatbuilding project, and can't seem to resist sneaking a peek at the Virginia.

"As visitors experience our history, they also experience our economy," said Gayla Teague, giving an impromptu tour. "It's a great synergy."

The organization recently signed a lease on the historic Bath Freight Shed through 2017, and it is expected that it will take at least until 2015 to finish Virginia, largely for financial reasons. The group is seeking corporate sponsorship, and with early estimates placing the cost of building the ship at $1.2 million, money is an ongoing discussion.

The treasurer said the group has not employed a shipwright up to this point, which has saved money, however the design process was costly and wood procurement was more expensive than anticipated.

"We may be a third of the way there, but that’s a shot in the dark," she said. "Every year is better with more interest and more volunteers."

LOOKING FORWARD TO LAUNCH

Once complete, Virginia will be equipped with modern navigation and safety equipment and a diesel engine. She will be able to carry 35 with the crew and serve as a floating classroom, open to the public.

"There will be a waiting list to go sailing on this girl," Teague said. "There will be nothing on the Maine coast that will be rigged like this vessel. It's very distinctive."

The Coast Guard has been involved with the project since the beginning, and the group credits the city of Bath and other private and public interests for supporting the effort.

"It's a wonderful series of collaborations," said Teague. "Our heart is here in Bath, and we are so excited to be part of the wooden boatbuilding renaissance here."

Hands-on work began in 2010 when volunteers and students built the shallop Jane Stevens. The 18-foot tender is a replica of a 17th century fishing vessel.

In 2011, the group laid the keel for Virginia along with four mid-ship frames and the bow. Last year, frames were assembled at a high pace. This year, frames have been raised, and faired for planking. The keelson is being fitted and hull planting will begin and is expected to continue through next year.

The group is using double-sawn futtock construction, which means two layers of timber gets pinned together, Tim Teague explained, in this case white oak.

"It takes a village to raise a ship," said Teague, noting the skills and experiences volunteers, especially teens, have at the boat shed leave a lasting impression. "They leave having Virginia's sawdust in their shoes."

The nonprofit is looking for donations of time, money and materials, and is hoping to gather timber from all 16 Maine counties so wood from the entire state can be incorporated into Virginia. New volunteers are welcomed to help with boatbuilding and staffing the visitor center. For more about Maine’s First Ship, visit www.mfship.org or call 443-4242.

 

click to enlargeWorking on the keel.
Working on the keel. KRIS FERRAZZA
click to enlarge
KRIS FERRAZZA

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