Capturing Time In A Bottle

September 22, 1991|By Lynn Williams

McCulloh Steen is a former industrial arts teacher, now into his sixth year of retirement. He has a wife, a house in the country, an apple orchard, and a basement workshop.

But inside the mature citizen, one suspects, is a wide-eyed little boy who has just discovered that most mysterious and fascinating of objects: the ship in a bottle.

Any kid, seeing a proud tall ship in full sail captured inside a whiskey bottle, will be, first, struck dumb with amazement, and secondly, full of questions. ("Wow! How did they do that?") By now Mac Steen knows all the answers -- he's been making the model ships since before his retirement -- but some of that youthful fascination remains.

The hobby is a demanding one, requiring a steady hand, tireless eyes and plenty of patience, but he still finds it wholly absorbing.

"You start working on one of these, and as you get halfway through each model you're saying 'Why am I doing this?' " he admits with a laugh. "But it's like a challenge. I always want the next one to be better."

Mr. Steen is a member of the Ships-in-Bottles Association of America, a fraternity of about 400 model-makers. There are eight Maryland members, four of whom are showing their work at the Top of the World Museum, on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center in the Inner Harbor. The exhibit, which also features ships by William Cronin, Michael Moriarty, and William Westervelt, will be on display through Oct. 31.

There are affiliated societies in Europe and the Far East; although the earliest known bottled ship was created in Germany in 1837, seafaring men spread the craft around the globe.

"In Japan, they put the ship in in reverse," Mr. Steen points out. "Our ships are all put in with the bow facing the hole, but theirs go in the other way. I guess it's like the British driving on the left side of the road."

Many ship-in-bottle makers have carved out their own niche in the field.

Bill Cronin, a retired oceanographer for Johns Hopkins University and the Chesapeake Bay Institute, is an all-around expert on life on the Chesapeake. Naturally, his bottle specialty is Chesapeake Bay boats: old-fashioned styles, such as log canoes and the pungeys once used for oystering, and historic boats such as the Peggy Stewart and the Defence, Maryland's first warship. Mr. Cronin, who lives in Annapolis, also makes simple ship-in-a-bottle kits, which he sells at crafts fairs.

Michael Moriarty, an employee of the U.S. Naval Academy, is known for his scrupulous realism. His ships are based on vessel plans which he researches in the academy's museum. Mr. Moriarty is responsible for the tiniest ship in the show, which is nestled in a doll house-scale bottle.

The magnificent creations of William Westervelt of Hampstead, president of the Maryland Chapter of the SIBAA, are among the (( show's most detailed; one of his bottles includes not only a ship, but a lighthouse, trees, and sea gulls.

Mr. Westervelt has been a bottle-shipwright for more than 30 years. "We had a lot of children, and I knew it was an inexpensive hobby," he says, explaining that he built his first ship in the formula bottle that came home from the hospital with his baby daughter.

"What you don't have, you can make. The only thing that limits you is your imagination."

He is well-known for seeking out wood from the ships themselves with which to build his models. One example is the Star of India, an 1863 barque now berthed in a San Diego museum. When it was restored, he was able to obtain pieces of the original deck.

Elaborately rigged ships of the Cutty Sark ilk, which have taken the fancy of many model makers, hold little enchantment for Mr. Steen. Like Mr. Cronin, he is attracted instead to the work boats of the Chesapeake Bay, from the swift clipper privateers of the early 19th century, which harried British merchant ships, to the sturdy skipjacks used by Maryland watermen.

"My grandfather, Alexander Mitchell, ran away from Scotland as a boy and sailed the old windjammers," he says. "He was a son-of-a-gun. He wound up in Baltimore, and became what you'd call today a born-again Christian. He became a minister down in the Port Mission."

On the other side of his family, he continues, his great-great-grandfather Joseph Despeaux was an 18th century Baltimore shipbuilder whose portrait hangs at the Maryland Historical Society.

His wife, Phyllis, also hails from a nautical family. She was born in Crisfield, where her family owned a fleet of skipjacks.

When Mr. Steen caught the bottled-ship bug, he discovered that kits were a rarity, information scarce, and tools non-existent. He learned the craft mostly from books -- he recommends "Ships in Bottles: A Step by Step Guide to a Venerable Nautical Craft" by Donald Hubbard, president of the SIBAA -- and developed some of his own techniques.

His experience teaching wood and metal shop courses came in handy when he began making the necessary long-handled tools. He also uses a variety of dental tools.

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