Shipwrights refit a bit of Boston's Revolutionary history
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.
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.