Ship of Dreams

Plymouth’s iconic Mayflower II gets a facelift


Whit Perry, Master of the Mayflower II, stood on the deck of the ship this winter and had a most unusual view: the Mystic River in southern Connecticut. As he stood there, at a height above sea level few will ever encounter from the deck of a 17th-century replica sailing ship, he knew it was a necessary diversion from the regular daily life of the South Shore’s most famous tourist attraction. There, at the Mystic Seaport shipyard, craftsmen have been working to restore and preserve the iconic ship.—- “We reach over 350,000 young people and adults a year,” Perry said, considering the educational power of the conglomeration of wood, tar, rope and bits of iron that form the Mayflower II. And that’s just the lucky travelers who can see her in person. The Mayflower II’s impact is almost immeasurable in today’s world. She’s become more than just the reconstruction of the plucky little vessel that braved the 1620 crossing to drop the Pilgrims onto the doorstep of the New World. She’s now a living representation of what America has become—a nation of immigrants. She’s the ultimate symbol of hope.

The Mayflower II’s story, though, is one of looking back, looking ahead and looking for knee replacements.

010715MFMC-3477Plymouth’s iconic replica ship came in with a bang. The idea was British in origin. Warwick Charlton, a journalist–turned–entrepreneurial adventurer and master marketer, first considered the notion of a Mayflower replica–despite the fact that no one really knew exactly what the Mayflower looked like—after reading the journal of Governor William Bradford in the North African desert. Charlton served as the press agent for England’s Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery during World War II in the battle against Nazi Germany. When pondering the relationship between Great Britain and the United States during the conflict, he envisioned his yet-to-be-built replica as a permanent link between the countries and a reminder of the deep historical links they shared.

Charlton pursued the dream in earnest in the 1950s. He chased funding and interest from individuals and corporations across England. When they were exhausted, he turned to the States, securing support from companies like the Mayflower Trucking Company of Indianapolis. Begging for materials, he secured the components he needed to build his ship, all the way down to the chopped up railroad rails that constituted the original ballast. Shipbuilder Stuart Upham, of Brixham, Devon, had volunteered to start the project before securing any funding, knowing that once the project got underway, “the little ship will start talking for herself.”

Authenticity became the watchword; in fact, it became the bottom line. The ship would be made of white oak, making it top-heavy, but as close to the real thing as possible. Upham even used ancient versions of shipbuilders’ tools, forsaking modern equipment. To ensure the best work possible, Charlton made Upham swear he would sail on the ship across the Atlantic himself when she was ready.

010715MFMC-3457But what of the design? The original ship was long gone by 1955, having served its mercantile purposes and then disappearing into history after an inspection in 1624. Several claims have arisen about pieces of the ship being built into other structures in England, but they have to be taken (like similar claims about pieces of the “original” Plymouth Rock) with a grain of salt. By chance, though, a second Pilgrimbased project was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. Henry Hornblower II had conceived of a place to tell the story of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, and in 1947 opened two English cottages and a fort on the waterfront in Plymouth— the very seeds of today’s Plimoth Plantation. By 1951, thoughts had percolated of a replica Mayflower, but funds had not yet been raised. One important step, though, had been taken.

William A. Baker, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an employee in the Bethlehem Steel making drawings from that knowledge. Plimoth Plantation had commissioned him to design a replica Mayflower. Those plans were used by the craftsmen at the Upham Shipyard to build the Mayflower II, completing the circle of irony. In order to launch a replica of a British-built ship 337 years later, British builders had to reach across the sea to an American living near its landing spot for the knowledge of how to build her.

The ship sailed, with mishaps, though nothing life-endangering, for 54 days in the spring of 1957, touching down in Plymouth to the greeting of 100,000 people as she settled into her new home. Plimoth Plantation became her permanent guardian. By the time that Warwick Charlton died in 2002, 40 million people had visited her. That’s an average of one out of every eight Americans living today. For the past 58 years, the Mayflower II has been a South Shore icon, occasionally taking to the nearby waters, but mostly serving as a dockside ambassador to the tourism public.

At 58 years old, the Mayflower II has an amazing future ahead of her. Looming on the horizon is the 400th anniversary of the day that the Pilgrims set foot in the New World—November 9, 2020, if you live in Provincetown, or November 11, 2020, if you’re from Plymouth. The town of Plymouth is already planning (and has been for years) how it will mark this historic milestone.

Tourism will be at a peak, as every Mayflower descendant will want to be in and around the old town that year as well as the years before and after. While no plans have been made yet for the exact duties of the Mayflower II during the quadricentennial celebration, one can surmise that she will be called upon to sail. The call may come even earlier, when she turns 60 in 2017. Toward that end, it’s time for those this winter taking the first steps in the long-term restoration of the ship. “With any ship, the most important thing? Keep the water on the outside,” says Perry, who is also Plimoth Plantation’s associate director for maritime preservation and operations. For a wooden sailing ship, the techniques for doing so have not changed since the original Mayflower’s time. The deck, which Perry likens to the roof of a house, needs to be sealed up tight. “We’ll be doing a lot of caulking down below, under the waterline, to keep the saltwater intrusion out,” which will keep Perry’s mind at ease as he sails the ship back and forth between Plymouth and Mystic over the next five years. Plymouth, and the South Shore, rely on the Mayflower II as an economic attraction, and can’t afford to have her high and dry in a shipyard for the next two years.

“The death of any wooden ship is the freshwater,” he adds pointing to the deck. Several leaks had been located and bungs noted as missing. Before doing any extensive work down below, this winter’s work focused on sealing up the deck. “You wouldn’t repair the drywall in your house before fixing the leak in your roof,” he says.

Below those decks, deep in the hold, Perry’s son, Dylan (Welsh for “of the sea”), worked at scraping out the rust and other materials found below the ballast, all of which had been removed in January. The railroad iron for which Warwick Charlton had so long ago begged for, sat on pallets alongside the ship, as did the tons of stone that had been added in the 1970s. The removal of that material and the thankless work of Dylan and volunteers from Mystic Seaport would help to uncover the true depth of the needed repairs, charting the course for the next five years.

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