Historic ship takes shape

Replica of 17th-century shallop built for anniversary of Smith's journey

January 14, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Edward Gera cut 17 wooden arches out of slabs of basswood and placed them into a row of slots on a thick wooden base.

He placed toothpicks in tiny holes drilled into the bottom of a wooden frame, and snapped clothespins at the bottom of the arches to hold the structure together until the glue dried.

Ever so slowly, the model of a shallop used by Capt. John Smith in the 17th century began to take shape.

"This is the most unusual boat I've ever made," said Gera, a 77-year-old model boat-building instructor.

The 28-inch model is part of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum's effort to celebrate a bigger project commemorating Smith's voyage up the Chesapeake Bay.

In 2005, a nonprofit group that promotes stewardship of the bay launched the Captain John Smith Four Hundred Project. The $1 million project, undertaken by Sultana Projects Inc. in Chestertown, includes building a 28-foot shallop, establishing a national historic water trail and embarking on a 121-day re-enactment of Smith's first exploration of the bay.

"From this voyage Smith produced the first known map of the bay that was published in 1612," said Drew McMullen, a Sultana founder who is overseeing the program. "We want to make the trip to bring attention to the journey today versus the journey Smith made 400 years ago."

When board members at the maritime museum learned that the full-sized shallop would be stopping in Havre de Grace on July 22, the same weekend as the annual Maritime Festival, they decided to build a model of the boat to honor the occasion.

"They wanted people to be able to come to the museum and see and learn about the boat," said Harry Glover, an instructor in the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum Boat Building School, who was tapped to build the model. "Then when the big boat comes to town, people will have some knowledge of it."

Gera, Glover and Bill Putland began building the scale model late last month, using the same blueprints that Sultana used in making its replica. They expect it to take several weeks to complete.

"We have to make it as authentic as possible," said Glover, 78, of Joppatowne. "Boat experts come into the shop and if they see something wrong with a model, they will call you on it."

The shallop, a commonly used boat, was standard equipment for explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"The large ships sailed by the explorers were dangerous to sail next to the coastline," McMullen said. "The shallop was just the right size."

The boat builders are learning about some of the boat's unique features as they build it. For example, the name of the boat comes from a French word that means "bundles of sticks," said Putland, 82, of Havre de Grace.

That meaning is fitting, considering that the boat was constructed in Europe, dismantled, and hauled to America on a larger ship, he said. Also, the shallop has a detailed frame, Putland said.

"The blueprints for the boat are pretty basic. But it has a pretty complicated design," he said. "We're building it as it would have been built in the 17th century. I've never built a boat like it."

But the payoff will be worth it, he said, when visitors to the museum discover a unique opportunity to learn about shallops.

"Kids today know that boats are fiberglass and that they go up and down the bay real fast," Putland said. "And I didn't even know about shallops. When I first heard about it I thought it was a scallop."

The history of the boat dates to Smith's first voyage along the Chesapeake. The journey kicked off in 1607 when Smith gathered 14 of the strongest colonists he could find and set sail on the shallop, McMullen said. He traveled more than 2,000 miles during a three-month period.

"Smith was looking for the Northwest Passage, and for gold and silver," McMullen said. "But more importantly, he was on a quest to find more Indians."

Part of the reason for starting the project was to show people the difference between the bay in 1608 and today, McMullen said.

"During Smith's voyage he saw some of the most amazing things," said McMullen, who sent historians to England to research the trip.

"Smith and his crew reported seeing trees that were 25 feet in diameter," said McMullen, who is president of Sultana. "They gave accounts of seeing 15- to 20-foot-long sturgeon, and shad that were so thick in the water the crew caught them in frying pans. They saw foot-long oysters in water that was so clear you could see down more than 10 feet."

With the research complete, Sultana began working on the next step of the project - creation of an official water trail that documents Smith's exploration of the bay.

"We thought it was important to commemorate the voyage because from it, the first map of the Chesapeake Bay was created," McMullen said.

In December, after more than a year of waiting for Congress to act, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail was established under the auspices of the National Park Service.

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