Miniature time capsules

Collection: The Naval Academy is working to preserve its centuries-old warship models -- and it's not about to surrender the fleet to the British.

March 28, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

The warships of the 17th century have long since sunk or burned, and their design plans, thought outdated and useless, were tossed more than 300 years ago.

But the only remaining copies of more than a dozen of these ships are still intact, barely held together by old glue and varnish, and displayed in the basement of the Naval Academy museum in Annapolis.

These ships, valued at a quarter of a million dollars each, were built alongside the real ones on the docks of England using the same plans -- 48 times smaller.

The academy owns 51 of the world's 400 remaining replicas, built over three centuries. At the time, they were given to influential politicians to curry favor for the Royal Navy. These days, they are more a thorn in the side of English naval historians, who believe the collection belongs in their maritime museum in London.

When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited to see the ships several years ago and stayed long after she was scheduled to leave, museum curator and ship historian Grant Walker said museum operators thought they might have to "pat her down on her way out."

Museum officials, though, say they will never part with them.

The collection fell into the hands of American collector and Naval Academy supporter Henry H. Rogers in the 1920s, who later donated them to the academy in the 1930s. Rogers sought out the rare models, buying them from British owners who had them tucked away at their estates.

The academy's collection of the ships, called dockyard models, has been on display since 1993, and although they are sealed inside glass cases, curators walk through the room as if on eggshells, careful not to talk too loud.

"I was inside this case last week," Walker said in a near whisper, pointing to a 300-year-old ship, "and basically had my throat in my mouth the whole time."

The ships are so perfectly re-created that the number of coils on each line is accurate, as are the facial expressions on tiny gold statues that would have stood a couple of feet tall on the original ship. Most model ships since the 17th century have adhered to the scale of 1 inch to 48 inches, meaning that a railing that would have stood 4 feet tall on the original ship would be re-created in a railing 1 inch tall on the model.

Curators were astounded last year when they sent a surgical arthroscope, a small camera, into the hulls of some of the models and found engraved furniture, benches and water pumps in places that can't be seen from the outside.

"They would carve these things and cover them up with the next floor with no expectation that they would ever be seen again," Walker said.

Some models are so delicate that touching them would cause them to disintegrate. Others are solid enough to withstand repairs, something many ships constantly need as silk mast lines break and centuries-old glue gives way.

The ships, which took six to eight years to build, often longer than it took to build their giant counterparts, take hours of tedious labor to repair, using magnifying glasses and tweezers.

Curators finally realized several years ago that they couldn't keep up with the repairs and hung a sign in a museum window asking for volunteers.

Now, a dozen or so people show up regularly Thursday nights to help fix the dockyard models and dozens of other more contemporary models from other parts of the museum.

For the most part, though, repairs to the dockyard ships are made by curator Robert Sumrall, a nationally known expert model ship builder who has worked on the collection for almost three decades. Along with 11-year volunteer Jack Hudock, an expert craftsman from Arnold, the two work to keep the models together and fix historical inaccuracies added to the ships by other repairmen over the centuries.

"A lot of people donate models to the museum that are complete wrecks, and I match them up with people's skill levels," Sumrall said. "A lot of people come because we have fun back here. We tell a lot of sea stories."

From the middle of the room cluttered with old tables, wood shavings and glue palettes, volunteer Harry Ohanian of Potomac jokes to the group that some of the volunteers are old enough to tell stories of sailing on the dockyard ships.

Others, including 16-year-old Annapolis high schooler Christopher Beck, are new to the trade.

Midshipman Erin Deedes, who used to build model airplanes in high school, has been volunteering in the basement since she was a freshman four years ago.

"Sometimes I come and I'm just too tired to work," she said. "So I just listen to them tell stories."

After 20 years of building models and several years of practicing with the group, Steve Grimaud of Crofton made a little deck house for one of the dockyard models.

The collection is impressive not only for its size but because more than a dozen of the models are from the 1600s, when shipbuilders did not keep the blueprints for their craft. In the 1700s, the Royal Navy ordered that they be preserved.

The ships show the changes in design of the fleet from the almost gaudy boats of the 1600s to the minimalist style of the 1700s, when Britain decided that gold-engraved wreaths and statues were an unnecessary expense and tended to kill sailors when the adornments were shattered by cannon fire.

Because paintings are inaccurate and lacking in detail, the dockyard ships provide historians with valuable clues about naval technique and skill in 1600s and 1700s.

Although the museum's collection is almost entirely English, the French and Spanish also built models in those centuries. Americans never have.

"We can only hope our glue holds up as long, and does as little damage, as their glue did 400 years ago," Walker said.

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