The Mayflower II is currently undergoing a full-scale restoration at the DuPont Shipyard in Mystic, Connecticut. It’s a replica of the merchant ship that brought the Pilgrims first to Provincetown and then to Plymouth in 1620 - a now-historic event that was completely unremarkable at the time.
“This is just cargo. The only good thing about this cargo is it was self-loading cargo,” said Whit Perry, Director of Maritime Preservation at Plimoth Plantation.
The original Mayflower was sold for scrap in 1624. Many years later, a man named Warwick Charlton was returning to England after serving in World War Two, and he began reading “Of Plimoth Plantation” by William Bradford, the definitive account of the Pilgrims.
“He formed a private company to build this reproduction and give it as a gift of appreciation to America for America’s help during World War Two,” said Perry.
There are no surviving plans for the original Mayflower, so historians relied on their general knowledge of vessels from that time period.
“We didn’t know if it was a Ford or a Dodge or a Chevy, and the exact detail for this reproduction, but we definitely knew what and early 17th-century merchant vessel would look like,” said Perry.
The Mayflower II was built at the Stuart Upham shipyard in England. It was completed in 1957, and sailed across the Atlantic to become a mainstay exhibit as part of Plimoth Plantation. The ship had routine maintenance over the years, and in 2013, it was decided that the time had come for a major overhaul.
The Mayflower II sits under a protective covering of poly-vinyl material that resembles an enormous white mailbox from the outside. Scaffolding surrounds much of the 85-foot long vessel. Shipwrights move here and there, chiseling, hammering, sanding, and caulking.
“We are using some modern power tools to get things close, but every piece, we’re still using chisels, broad-axe, hand-planes and mallets to do the final fitting of all these pieces,” said Perry. “The chisels and cutting of all the mortise pockets for these beams – still the best and only way to do that is by hand.”
A major undertaking was finding good quality white oak, which the shipyard has acquired from Massachusetts and several other states. And there was another key requirement.
“We want long, crooked trees rather than short-ish, straight ones like you’d use for normal lumber. We like to try and use as close to the natural shape of the ship as we can when we’re cutting out these frames,” said Perry.
Near the ship’s bow, Jamie Kirschner uses special caulking irons to pound strips of cotton in between seams of planking.
“Two typical ones you use are a threading iron, which you thread the cotton end with, and then there’s a making iron that drives it down and packs it tight. And we’ll do two strands of cotton in each seam, and then a marine-grade putty on top of it,” said Kirschner.
Roughly 25 to 30 percent of the original Mayflower II materials are being used in the restoration – the remainder is new construction.
“Down really low in the ship is one of the places where if there was any question mark about whether we keep the piece or replace the piece, we replaced it, because that’s where it’s gonna 130 tons of internal ballast on top of all that framing,” said Perry. “We do not wanna have to address any issues down deep under the water line like that in, say, another ten years. not only are we restoring the ship for the 2020 commemoration, but for the next 60 years of the ship’s life-cycle.”
The Mayflower II will be re-christened on September 7th. Workers will then install rigging, apply paint and other finishing touches. The ship returns to Plymouth for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing in 1620, and will eventually sail to Provincetown.