Restoring A National Treasure

With the much-anticipated 400th anniversary of the 1620 Mayflower crossing just a few years off, Plymouth’s iconic replica ship is slated to receive a facelift of historic proportions.

By John Galluzzo
Photography courtesy of Plimouth Plantation and Marianne Lee

Imagine believing so strongly in your religion, knowing that it separated you from the established norms of your homeland, that you were willing to leave behind possessions, friends and even family to start anew somewhere else. Now, imagine that a whole New World awaited, a place where there would be no one to judge, and the only obstacle standing between you and your new life—was an ocean.

To the Pilgrims, the Mayflower may have seemed utilitarian; the vessel would take them on a two-month-long journey across 800 nautical miles of open sea. But in reality, the ship represented much more—a hope for freedom, rebirth and a fresh start. Despite the perilous conditions onboard the ship and the treacherous winter they faced in the new land, the small band of religious separatists would go on to establish the first permanent foothold of European settlement in the New World. So powerful is the message of hope in the Pilgrim narrative that nearly four hundred years later the story is still being told, including through living history pageantry aboard Mayflower II, a life size replica of the original ship.

Docked at the end of State Pier in Plymouth Harbor, Mayflower II is a landmark attraction that has been visited by millions of people from around the world. Costumed role players, modern-day staff and skilled maritime artisans educate guests about 17th-century shipboard life and maritime traditions.

“It’s the ultimate visual aid,” says Laney O’Keefe, a third-grade teacher at Wellfleet Elementary School who organizes a field trip to the Mayflower II each year. “Students exclaim as they spy the shallop, cringe at the sight of chamber pots and take turns crouching in the corners of the main deck pretending to find a place to rest.”

Ship of Dreams

Warwick Charlton was the first person to consider the notion of building a Mayflower replica. He had served as the press agent for England’s Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery during World War II in the battle against Nazi Germany and when pondering the relationship between Great Britain and the United States during the conflict, he envisioned the yet-to-be-built replica ship creating a permanent link between the countries.

Charlton pursued his dream in earnest in the 1950s, securing support from companies like the Mayflower Trucking Company of Indianapolis and acquiring materials needed to build the ship, including white oak timber and chopped up railroad rails, which constituted the original ballast. Authenticity became the watchword for the project; in fact, it became the bottom line. Shipbuilder Stuart Upham of Brixham, Devon, England joined the project and forsaking modern equipment, went so far as to use ancient versions of shipbuilders’ tools. To ensure the best work possible, Charlton made Upham swear he would sail on the ship across the Atlantic himself when she was ready.

Meanwhile, across the pond, a man named Henry Hornblower II conceived of creating a place that would tell the story of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1947, Hornblower opened two English cottages and a fort on the waterfront—thus laying the seeds for what is now Plimoth Plantation. By 1951, the idea of building a replica Mayflower was also percolating in Hornblower’s mind. Funds for such a project had not yet been raised, but one important step had been taken.

William A. Baker, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an employee in the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, had extensively researched 17th century sailing vessels from a design standpoint and since 1941 had been making drawings based on his findings. Plimoth Plantation commissioned Baker to create a design for a replica Mayflower and his plans were eventually used by the craftsmen at the Upham Shipyard to build Mayflower II. The replica ship sailed for 54 days in the spring of 1957 and was greeted upon its arrival in Plymouth by a crowd of 100,000 people. Plimoth Plantation became the permanent guardian of the ship and by the time Charlton died in 2002, 40 million people had visited the vessel.

Keeping the Water Out

Mayflower II has served as a dockside historic ambassador for the past 59 years. But time took a toll on the old wooden ship and in the winter of 2014-2015, the vessel was transported to Mystic Seaport Museum’s Henry B. DuPont Shipyard to begin much-needed repairs. Whit Perry, the master of the Mayflower II and director of maritime preservation and operations at Plimoth Plantation, knew it was a necessary diversion for the South Shore’s greatest tourism magnet. The workers began working in the deepest and darkest areas of the ship. The ballast was removed; rust and other material scraped out and new problems were uncovered. The ship underwent a lot of caulking to stave off saltwater intrusion. Several leaks were dealt with, missing bungs replaced and the deck sealed.

During the winter of 2015-2016, Mayflower II was back in Mystic. This time, the workers focused on the jackstays (ropes that run the length of a yard, to which sails are “bent” or fastened), footropes (laid out horizontally under the yards, on which sailors stand when they go aloft to furl and unfurl sails) and the topmast shrouds (portions of the generally confusing mass of rigging that are used to hold the mast in place), knees (obtuse L-shaped underdeck supports) and more. The wood for the knees will be coming from white oak trees in Virginia and Kentucky, where Berea College has an 8,000 acre managed forest and has provided some excellent wood for plank stock. The decks were contoured to shed water using old-fashioned tools like broad axes and adzes.

Hope Floats

The 400th anniversary of the day the Pilgrims set foot in the New World (November 9, 2020, if you live in Provincetown and November 11, 2020, if you’re from Plymouth) is just a few years off, and Plymouth residents are already making preparations to mark the occasion and accommodate the influx of tourists that are expected to come to town. While no plans have been made yet for the exact duties of Mayflower II during the quadricentennial celebration, one can surmise that she will be called upon to sail.

Mayflower II will be back at the dock for the 2016 season, but as this year draws to a close the preservation effort will kick into high gear. In order to be ready for 2020, the ship will need to be in Mystic for several years. The work that needs to be completed simply can’t be completed in the span of a New England winter.

“The part of the preservation effort that requires the ship to be away from Plymouth for a more extended period involves fabricating an engineered I-beam structure to support the ship and preserve the shape of the ship so that we can remove many under-the-waterline planking, frames, inner keelson and bilge stringers for replacement,” said Perry. “We will also be replacing parts of the bow stem area as well as parts of the stern post.”

It’s a big job, but thankfully, the ship is in good hands. Perry, a North Andover boy who ran a lakeside boat shop in New Hampshire, moved into his career in wooden sailing ships in time to take part in the quadricentennial celebrations at Jamestown in 2007. Captain Paul Haley of Orleans did the survey work for the project and detailed the scope of what needs to be accomplished and Mystic Seaport’s shipwrights and other craftsmen recently built the ship Amistad and restored and sailed the last American whaling ship, Charles W. Morgan.

“This preservation effort is giving us the ability to take care of the ship for the next 50 years of its life cycle,” says Perry. With a little luck and plenty of elbow grease, the Mayflower II will be in shipshape condition when Plymouth marks its long-awaited 400th anniversary.

To learn more about Mayflower II or to help support the preservation project, contact Plimoth Plantation’s Development Office at (508) 746-1622, ext. 8203, or visit

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