Shipwrights refit a bit of Boston's Revolutionary history

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Boston, Dec. 16, 1773

Chop, chop, crack! From the direction of the three merchant ships tied up at Griffin's Wharf comes the sound of wood splintering. The night is cold, but several thousand people have gathered to watch in silence.

The three ships - Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver - haven't been in Boston long. Dartmouth arrived on Nov. 28, Eleanor on Dec. 1, and Beaver on the 8th. Their holds are laden with tea from England.

The tea is packed in wooden crates. The cheaper the tea, the bigger the crate. The cheapest tea is packed in crates that weigh about 400 pounds apiece. Expensive tea is in smaller, 80-pound crates. Tea is a very valuable cargo.

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None of the crates have yet been offloaded. They're still in the vessels' holds because the Sons of Liberty have not allowed them to be landed. But, look! Men disguised as native Americans are bringing the crates up on deck. Others are splitting them open with axes and hatchets and dumping them overboard. It's the Boston Tea Party, one of the events that will lead up to the American Revolution.

Gloucester, Mass., 2004

Scrape, scrape, scrape! A ship's carpenter, called a shipwright, shapes a piece of wood with an adze. The tool has a thin metal head and a long, curved handle. Other men swing broad axes, pin mauls (hammers with steel heads to drive spikes), mallets (hammers with wooden heads), and other old-fashioned hand tools. Power tools whine alongside them here at the Gloucester (pronounced GLOSS-ter) Maritime Heritage Center, a shipyard and living museum.

The activity surrounds a 96-year-old wooden ship hauled up on a marine railway nearby. At the moment, the ship looks half-disassembled. The masts and yards - long horizontal wooden spars (poles) from which sails are set - have been removed. Not far away, miles of rope (the running rigging, which controls the sails) lies coiled in big piles.

Much of the exterior planking has been removed from the ship's hull. With the boards gone, you can see the frames underneath. The frames are the ribs of the vessel. They curve up from the keel and give the hull its shape. Many of the frames have rotted and must be replaced.

New life for a wooden ship

This ship is the Beaver II, named for one of the original Tea Party ships. Since 1973 it has been part of the Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum in Boston. The ship was originally called Victoria. It was built in Denmark in 1908 as a Baltic Sea cargo carrier. A wooden vessel typically lasts about 30 years, so though she's not as old as her 1773 namesake would be, she's already lasted the equivalent of three wooden-ship lifetimes.

Beaver II has come here for a major overhaul. The ship has been repaired several times since 1973, but never on such a large scale. Wood suffers a lot of damage from the ocean and the weather. Over the years, many of her wooden parts have rotted through and now need replacing.

Other changes will make the ship look more like the original Beaver. One of her two cargo hatches will be removed. She'll also get a windlass for raising the anchor and a ship's wheel like the ones used in the 1700s.

To make sure that water can't get in through the seams between the planks that form the Beaver II's hull, shipwrights will caulk (seal) the seams. They'll use the same process used 200 years ago - with a twist. First, the shipwrights will pound a strand of cotton and then a strand or two of oakum (tarred rope) into the seam. Then they'll paint the seam. After that they'll put in a modern seam compound that's a lot like the putty used to seal panes of glass in windows. For seams below the waterline, the shipwrights will use Portland cement as putty.

You may be surprised at how small and fragile Beaver II appears. The sailing ship is 84 feet long on deck and 20 feet wide. In other words, the ship is about twice as long as a modern city bus and a little more than twice as wide. By comparison, the Mayflower was probably about 90 feet long and 26 feet wide.

While commercial ships are made of steel and are much larger now, people haven't stopped making wooden boats. And because wooden boats need frequent maintenance, the skills needed to build and maintain them have been kept alive, too.

Leon Poindexter is the master shipwright in charge of Beaver II. He's worked on wooden vessels all his life. He and the other shipwrights - John Hinckley, Doug Parsons, and Nate Piper - learned their skills by working in shipyards and marinas.

On the starboard (right) side of the ship, one shipwright looks at a stretch of hull that's waiting for new planking. The new planks are straight and flat, but the hull is curved. To make a plank bend to fit the hull, shipwrights soften it using steam. Steam is piped to a long wooden box from a boiler. In the 1700s, a wood fire heated the steam. Today, Mr. Poindexter and his crew use a boiler that used to heat a house.

When the shipwrights need to bend a plank to fit the curved hull of the ship, they fire up the boiler. Then they put the plank into the steam box, and wait. It takes an hour to steam an oak plank that's one inch thick. But Beaver II's planks are 2-1/2 inches thick. It takes 2-1/2 hours to steam them.

Bending wood with steam

When the plank is pliable, it is put on the hull and clamped in position. Six-inch-long galvanized-steel spikes are pounded in to hold it in place. Once the plank cools, it will keep its shape.

There's very little about historic wooden ships that mystifies Beaver II's shipwrights. But if they could, there is something in particular they would ask their 18th-century counterparts. To hold a ship's frames together and to fasten the planking to the frames, 18th-century shipwrights would have used long wooden pins called trunnels (also spelled "treenails"). The original Beaver's trunnels were probably 1-1/8 inches in diameter and 12 to 18 inches long.

Three hundred years ago, shipwrights would have used hand augers to drill holes for the trunnels, which would have been pounded home with wooden mallets (beetles). Hand augers were shaped like a T and had to be twisted to gouge out a hole with a spoon-shaped bit. Braces, or bitstocks, were also used. They had a bend in the shaft so the drilling could be done with a continuous motion.

"There are thousands of holes on a boat like this," Poindexter says, "and they were all drilled by hand." Not only that, he continues, "they're big holes, too. You had to put 1-1/8-inch trunnels into them." Drilling by hand is hard work.

Drilling big, deep holes in tough oak is even harder work. What he wants to know is, "How did they have the persistence and the stamina to do it, day in and day out?"

A boycott becomes a revolt

Like their British cousins, American colonists loved their tea - imported by Britain's Honourable East India Company. In 1763, Great Britain had just taken over vast new North American territories by winning the French and Indian War, but now the nation was heavily in debt.

To raise money, Britain's Parliament passed a series of laws that hit the American colonists hard. The new laws called for heavy taxes on imported products such as sugar, coffee, printed matter (the notorious Stamp Act) - and finally, tea.

Many colonists thought the taxes were very unfair. Most of all, they objected to Parliament deciding what taxes they should pay, especially since the colonists had no voting representatives in Parliament. Some colonists became very outspoken on this issue. They began to protest. It worked, a little: In 1770, Parliament repealed many of the taxes, but not the one on tea. So many colonists decided to use their power as consumers: They refused to buy tea from the East India Company.

The boycott was so successful that it helped bring the East India Company close to bankruptcy. Parliament finally lowered the tea tax in 1773, but it was too little, too late. When the tea-laden vessels Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver sailed to Boston in late 1773, members of the rebellious Sons of Liberty concocted a plan to show their continuing displeasure.

On the evening of Dec. 16, disguised (not very convincingly) as native Americans, the Sons of Liberty boarded the merchant ships. In three hours they dumped 342 crates of tea into the water. The Boston Tea Party was over.

• The Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum will reopen late next year in Boston. The overhauled Beaver II will be joined by a replica of one of her two sister ships. The third ship is scheduled to join them a year later.

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