The ship's shapers

Constellation: For two years, scores of men and women have used ancient skills and modern technology to restore the 1854 warship. They will be sorry to see it go.

June 30, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

In a sepia-tinted scene lifted straight from a 19th-century Baltimore shipyard, men wielding ancient mallets and caulking irons worked their way down the deck of the 1854 warship Constellation, hammering oakum yarn into the ship's seams, sealing them against the rain.

This week, the riggers have held center stage, hoisting painted spars and freshly tarred lines into place. Below them, shipwrights armed with saws and sledges raced to wrap up 2 1/2 years of restoration work, readying the ship for Friday morning's return to the Inner Harbor.

They are among a small but growing community of men and women -- natives, transplants and itinerants -- who have helped build Baltimore's reputation as a center for the traditional repair and construction of wooden ships.

"Baltimore has to be one of the biggest turnarounds in the industry," said shipbuilder Alan Rawl of Bradshaw. "If someone wanted a vessel of a decent size built, they would have to consider this [Baltimore] as one of the better places to have it done."

On Friday, the warship that chased down slavers off West Africa and patrolled the Mediterranean and the Gulf Coast during the Civil War will be pushed up the Patapsco in a waterborne parade beginning at 9 a.m. It should arrive at Constellation Dock by 11: 30 a.m., saluted by cannon, fireboats and a Navy flyover.

It will be a bittersweet moment for the men and women who, with ancient skills, modern technology and plain muscle, have freed the ship of its rot, straightened its keel, strengthened its hull and returned it faithfully to its Civil War appearance.

Scores more, from here and away, have contributed their skills with wood, iron, oakum and rigging. Their numbers and skills keep growing, said Guy Peter Boudreau, who built the Pride of Baltimore II, the Lady Maryland and led the Constellation's $9 million restoration.

"If I were to try to repair the Constellation 25 years ago, I'd have to write letters, put out ads, make phone calls across the whole country," said Boudreau, 44. "When we started this project, we didn't make any phone calls. People found us."

For large-boat construction outside of museum shipyards, "I don't know of any to equal Baltimore," said Michael O'Brien. He is a senior editor at Wooden Boat, a Maine-based magazine regarded by many as an authority on the industry.

The people who turn up in Baltimore to build and repair wooden ships are in love with their traditions. Many have sailed on the Pride and other tall ships. At sea, they say, fine craftsmanship is tied directly to their safety and well-being.

"It's a challenge to do a good job, and do it consistently, as fast as I can, as well as I can," said Joe Chetwynd, 56, who came from Pembroke, Mass. to caulk the Constellation.

Spinning oakum beside him was Bob Brittain, 41, an Arnold resident whose accent betrays him as a transplanted Englishman. "If we didn't do a good job, people would be ... complaining about wet bunks," he said.

Baltimore's renaissance in wooden shipbuilding began with the construction of the first Pride of Baltimore in 1977, followed by the 72-foot pungy schooner Lady Maryland (1986) and the Pride of Baltimore II (1988).

There have been major repair jobs on the historic skipjack Minnie V, and a six-month, $350,000 overhaul of the Philadelphia-based goodwill ship Gazela Primeiro in 1992. The Living Classrooms Foundation has provided additional work and training on skipjack restorations and the maintenance of its historic wooden fleet.

Wherever big wooden ships are being built, it seems Marylanders, or people who honed their skills here, are somewhere behind the scenes.

In Delaware, Rawl led the design and construction of the 97-foot Kalmar Nyckel, a sailing replica of the armed pinnace that brought Swedish settlers to Wilmington in 1638. Completed in 1997, it is serving as Delaware's goodwill ship. Rawl has also consulted on historic ship projects in Italy and Russia.

Connecticut is spending $3.1 million on a replica of the 80-foot slave ship (the state prefers "freedom ship") Amistad. Now under construction at Mystic Seaport, the ship is a small Baltimore clipper, modified for enhanced safety. It was designed by Peter Boudreau.

A handful of Constellation shipyard veterans -- including shipwright Rodney Goode, 33, of Fells Point -- have gone to work in Ireland, where two replica "famine ships" -- the vessels that brought Irish immigrants to America during the Potato Famine of the mid-19th century -- are under construction. Others may follow.

Boudreau stands at the center of Baltimore's traditional shipbuilding renaissance. He arrived in Baltimore from the West Indies island of St. Lucia in 1976 to work on the first Pride. He stayed to build the Lady Maryland, Pride II, and to repair the Gazela. He hired and trained increasingly skilled cadres of workers and won their respect and loyalty.

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