Setting sail from the Isle of Wight in 1633 bound for the New World, the Dove, a small, two-masted square-rigger, was caught in a sudden storm. Last seen flying distress lanterns by the crew of her larger companion ship, the Ark, it was assumed she was lost at sea. But six weeks later she miraculously sailed into Barbados, catching up with the Ark, and together they eventually reached Chesapeake Bay.
Built as a 40-ton cargo ship with a 7-foot draft, she was the ideal vessel for early Colonists to explore the Atlantic Seacoast. Escaping religious persecution, they settled in what eventually became St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s first capital. During the next two years they sailed the Dove between Maryland and Massachusetts much like a coastal freighter, trading with native peoples and transporting goods from one settlement to another. But in 1635 she set sail for England loaded with furs and timber, never to be seen again.
Now, nearly 400 years later, the Dove is being reborn as the Maryland Dove—again. Her first rebirth took place in 1978 when the Historic St. Mary’s City commissioned James Richardson of Cambridge, Maryland, to build a replica. Owned by the state of Maryland, she became a tourist attraction, serving as a floating ambassador to the city. Like most wooden vessels, though, she began showing her age and was in need of a major refit.
More importantly, much had been discovered in recent years about the original Dove’s design and construction. The 1978 replica fell short of these latest findings. Armed with this knowledge, the new replica would be historically accurate.
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) in St. Michaels, Maryland, was awarded the contract to build the boat. No stranger to wooden boat restoration, CBMM has a rich history of preserving the maritime past. Founded in 1965, the museum’s 18-acre campus boasts the area’s largest collection of historic Chesapeake Bay watercraft. More than 10 of these vessels serve as in-the-water exhibits requiring regular maintenance by the museum’s working shipyard. Add a growing list of major restoration projects, and CBMM’s yard is bustling with activity.
On any given work day, the sounds of saws, mallets, chisels, sanders, drills and planers can be heard here. Near the museum’s restored 19th-century lighthouse, exotic and locally grown wood is stacked, waiting to be milled, dried and cut. Bellowing pipes of hot steam feed large, plastic sleeves that encapsulate wooden planks, allowing them to be bent to form the graceful, curved hull. Red-hot, molten metal is being poured into sand molds to make bronze fittings. Wood chips and sawdust are everywhere, covering the ground, the equipment and even the young apprentices, the experienced shipwrights and the highly esteemed graybeard masters. Together, they form a skilled, cross-generational team dedicated to utilizing as many of the 17th-century methods of construction as are practical today.
Knowing the importance of the new Maryland Dove’s historical accuracy, the museum’s head shipwright, Joe Connor, and head rigger, Sam Hilgartner, travelled to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm to examine the construction of the well-preserved 17th-century warship, which shared many of the construction methods with British and Dutch ships of the same period. “By crawling around the inside of the Vasa we were able to get a better understanding of the overall workmanship of the era,” says Connor. Work began in spring 2019. Space within the museum’s 25,000-square-foot shipyard was dedicated to the project, starting with a full-size lofting floor. Here, Frank Townsend, master shipwright, spent weeks drawing the boat and creating patterns for its major structural components. The first shipments of lumber soon arrived, including Southern live oak from Georgia, ash from Maryland and angelique and cortez from Suriname—all destined for the ship’s backbone and frames.
While the project’s naval architect, Iver Franzen of Annapolis, provided basic two-dimensional drawings, Connor and his crew were charged with designing, mocking up and building the hundreds of detailed parts and components of the ship. “Take blocks, for example. We went to Kent Island to cut down the ash trees we needed,” says Connor. “We then milled them, dried the wood, cut and slot-morticed them. For authenticity’s sake, we’re trying to make everything in-house, although every once in a while I wish we could just drive over to West Marine.”
Connor’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious. And for a relatively young man, his experience is impressive. After a year studying boatbuilding at The Landing School he worked for the wooden boat division of a major boatyard in New Zealand. From there he moved back to the States to help build the 105-foot America 2.0 at New York’s Scarano yard. He then sailed his 30-foot sloop to Panama, where he learned to build cayucos—log canoes used to transport people and freight up and down the canal. Connor returned to the Eastern Shore of Maryland where he grew up, happily joining CBMM in 2012.
Work on the Maryland Dove progressed, but in early spring 2020 work was stalled because of Covid. The museum’s campus was shut down, and while some tasks could be done remotely, much of the work was delayed for several weeks. Thankfully, most construction was taking place outdoors, and by fall 2020 the staff, wearing masks and practicing social distancing, was back at work. A target for splashing the hull was set for fall 2021 with final delivery to St. Mary’s City scheduled for early spring 2022.
As the Maryland Dove began to take shape, her frames in place and ready for planking, it became apparent to the shipwrights and apprentices that working in a museum is not the same as working in a typical boatyard. As if part of an exhibit, they answer questions from the thousands of visitors who come each year. While the main goal is to build a strong, beautiful ship true to 17th-century construction methods, the team has become immersed in both learning and teaching maritime history.
“After I was hired for the project I researched the history of the Dove and 17th-century boatbuilding in general. The more I read the more I became fascinated by Maryland’s colonial history, learning about the Calvert family, Maryland’s Catholic community and religious tolerance,” says the project’s Head Rigger, Sam Hilgartner. Asked about the authenticity of the Maryland Dove’s many rigging details he adds, “One of my best resources has been Dutch paintings of this period that provide strict observations of the various types of vessels throughout Europe. Thanks to these paintings, we’ve learned that gaff rigs didn’t exist before 1640 or 1650. So to be authentic, the Maryland Dove will not be gaff-rigged. And we’ve learned how rigging components were piece-specific in those days. They couldn’t just swap out one block for another.”
Part of the museum’s mission is for the Maryland Dove’s shipwrights to pass along their skills to its young apprentices. Master Shipwright Frank Townsend has been been building and restoring historic wooden ships for over 40 years and is proud that he has never lacked for work. After graduating from a two-year wooden boatbuilding school in Maine he later studied yacht design at the Westlawn Institute. Townsend travels to wherever historic ships need him, packing his tools in his car and staying until the project is complete. Before signing onto the Maryland Dove, he worked on the Mayflower II at Mystic Seaport, and before that he helped build the 100-foot replica of San Salvador in San Diego. “When I first signed on to the Dove, I expected to be working mostly with experienced shipwrights. But the apprentice program meant part of my job was to help those who will follow us,” says Townsend. “These young apprentices soak up everything like a sponge, learning skills that will keep them employed for the rest of their lives.”
Four aspiring shipwrights are enrolled in the museum’s certified four-year apprentice program, which requires 8,000 hours of work experience. They’re an integral part of the Maryland Dove team, working closely with the experienced pros. Frame-by-frame, the Maryland Dove is being reborn. And like so many other fine wooden ships, she’s starting to feel like a living thing of beauty. On the day she sets sail for St. Mary’s City, the museum’s boatyard crew will be there, knowing they helped preserve part of our maritime history.
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.