Mystic Seaport's Shipyard tackles two major projects in tandem

Following in the wake of the five-year restoration of its 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, Mystic Seaport has started two new projects of note in its shipyard. The 1957 replica galleon Mayflower II is in the second year of a major restoration to return the vessel to sailing status for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ crossing to America, and the museum’s steamboat Sabino is in the shop for work to guarantee she will operate for another quarter century or longer. 

A Working Steamboat

Sabino was built in 1908 in East Boothbay, Maine, and spent most of her career ferrying passengers and cargo between towns and islands on the Maine coastline. She is 57 feet long and has a beam of 23 feet. Her hull is constructed of wood and she is powered by a 75 horsepower two-cylinder compound steam engine—the very same engine that was installed in 1908. The engine was constructed in nearby Noank, Connecticut, and her boiler is fueled by burning coal. Sabino is a National Historic Landmark and one of the oldest steamboats in operation in the United States. The vessel came to Mystic Seaport in 1973 and takes visitors on 30-and 90-minute cruises on the Mystic River during the summer months.


As with any boat of Sabino’s vintage, there comes a time when regular maintenance is superseded by the need for more extensive restoration. That moment was reached in 2014 as the keel bolts were nearing mandatory replacement and areas around the shaft log and deadwood in the stern needed attention. (The shaft log is the wood structure through which the propeller shaft exits the hull.)  The decision was made to take her out of service for one year so this work and other necessary tasks could be completed in the shipyard.

A crane removes Sabino's pilothouse prior to the boat being hauled and placed in the main shop 

The project calls for replacement of the stairs, forward decks, the horn timber, shaft log, some of the deadwood, and a number of frames, as well as the keel bolts and about 20-25 planks of varying lengths. The work around the stern is the most challenging.


Sabino in the main shop minus her pilothouse, canopy and stack

“It’s painstaking work, because the fits are difficult,” explains Walter Ansel, senior shipwright and the project lead. “The back of the boat is like a cone, so if you imagine the stern as the vanishing point you can see that all the lines gather there, and the perpendicular frames each have a specific, changing bevel to make all those plank lines match up.”

Sabino originally was constructed of a mix of Maine hardwoods. In this scheme, the white oak frames needing replacement will be fabricated from live oak left over from the restoration of the Morgan. A 10-inch x 10-inch curved timber cut to be a futtock on the whaleship could be sawn on a big bandsaw and provide two matching 3-inch x 3-inch flitches for frames on the smaller steamboat.


Left:  The original Payne steam engine dates from 1908. It is receiving a mechanical restoration at the same time as the hull.  Right:  Senior shipwright Walter Ansell uses an adze to shape wood around the shaft log at the stern.  

“We’ve sort of made a policy that when we can we shift over to live oak for framing just for the durability. It’s similar to our practice of switching over to bronze screws instead of iron; you get more time out of the option,” said Ansel.

Of course, the mandate is to preserve as much original fabric as possible and the keel and some of the deadwood in the problem area was saved. 

One area of difficulty is the 1940s-era boiler, which needs to be replaced. Changes in regulations and the rarity of firms that can design and fabricate a marine boiler of this small size and purpose have contributed to a delay in the completion of the project. Originally scheduled to return to operation this summer, Sabino will be launched without a boiler in the late spring or early summer to function as a static exhibit while the boiler replacement is worked out.

A Part-time Guest

Mayflower II passes through the Mystic River drawbridge on its way to Mystic Seaport in December 2015

The Mayflower II project has the ship commuting from her berth in Plymouth, Massachusetts each year for work over the winter. Mayflower II is owned by Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum that recreates the Pilgrims’ colony, and the vessel is the primary draw for the tourism business in the community. Having the ship away during the summer high season would be detrimental to the local economy. However, the additional cost and extra time the part-year schedule of work adds to the project has spurred some discussion that the vessel should spend a longer period at Mystic Seaport.

As with Sabino, the restoration honours the ship’s original construction using traditional methods with the goal of restoring the ship to her original state when she first arrived to Plymouth in 1957. Inspections in 2013 revealed that Mayflower II was in need of a major refit, which was not unexpected for a nearly 60-year-old wooden ship. Prior to the initiation of the work at Mystic Seaport, Plimoth Plantation completed some major repairs to secure a safe condition for the ship to continue operations on the Plymouth waterfront. Those efforts were the initial steps toward addressing the long-term restoration plan.

The first winter of work, 2014-2015, primarily focused on removing ballast—a mixture of scrap iron that had rusted solid in most cases and was a nasty job to remove—and conducting a thorough survey that informed the development of a restoration plan. Caulking the topsides and deck and applying a new coat of paint was also completed for her return to Plymouth.

This winter the shipyard and Mayflower II’s crew have focused on replacing the ‘tween deck and related structure and work on the rig. This could be accomplished without hauling the ship, which added several weeks to the available work time as the new ballast did not need to be removed.



  A view of work on Mayflower II's 'tween deck 






A positive feature of the project is the opportunity for two similar institutions to collaborate for the benefit of both. Mystic Seaport has the experienced and knowledgeable staff and the facility to do the work at close to cost for Plimoth Plantation, and Mayflower II is both a draw for visitors to Mystic Seaport and an opportunity to keep the shipyard staffed and operating at a higher level.

“Part of our mission is to pass on the skills and techniques of traditional shipbuilding and historic preservation to the next generation, and projects such as this enable us to fulfill that goal while at the same time supporting an important member of the history museum community,” says Steve White, president of Mystic Seaport. “We are very excited to have the opportunity to help restore Mayflower II, so she can continue to tell the story of the Pilgrims and their brave journey to America.”

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 First published March 2016