Historic Mayflower II at Mystic Seaport for Historic Renovations 

I’m inside the belly of the boat on the Mayflower II and the first thing that strikes me is just how cramped it is. I’m 5’10” if I’m being generous, but here on the tween deck, below the main deck and above the cargo hold, I have to crouch. As the ship’s captain Whit Perry shows me around I bump my head several times.

The mid deck is only a few feet below the sunshine, air and open water views found on the top deck, but it may as well be miles away. Even though it’s lit by electric lights, it is still a subterranean lair of wood and shadow that helps peel back the layers of time. Standing, or crouching slightly in the space, it’s hard to imagine an extended stay down here. It’s even harder to imagine spending months here, in rough seas, when the deck is filled beyond capacity with 102 passengers. However, that’s what happened when the original Mayflower set sail from England in 1620 on a harrowing, 66-day voyage.

Built in the 1950s, the Mayflower II is a modern recreation of that vessel and a powerful symbol of the American immigrant dream. In late December it arrived in Mystic Seaport, from its home port in Plymouth—where it is operated by the Plimoth Plantation—for the first step in a multiphase restoration project that will begin this winter and continue off and on for the next four years until 2020 and the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage. In Mystic, the public will be able to see the ship at various stages during its restoration with the plan for guests at the Seaport to be able to board it in February.(The Mayflower II arrives at Mystic Seaport. Photos Courtesy of Mystic Seaport). The Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at Mystic Seaport will oversee the ship’s restoration. The process is part of a major collaboration between Mystic Seaport and Plimoth Plantation that for Mystic Seaport is something of a sequel to the historic voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, which took place last summer and saw the last wooden whaleship return to sea for the first time in decades on a tour of New England ports.

In a way, the story of how this ship arrived in Mystic is a story of three voyages; one that occurred almost 400 years ago and has lived on in the annals of American history; another that took place in 1957 and is an often overlooked feat of modern sailing history; and a third voyage that is only just beginning.

THE FIRST VOYAGE, 1620

“A difficult journey”

If you stayed awake in your American history class, you’ll remember that the Mayflower carried a group of British Puritans who wanted to break with the Church of England and raise their children in adherence to the strict tenets of their faith. What many of us never got from these history classes is just how momentous and dangerous the decision to leave England and come to the New World truly was. “It’s like a trip to the moon would be for us today,” Perry tells me.Indeed, the 1620 trip was fraught with peril and problems from the beginning. Initially, the group of about 40 pilgrims and a larger group of relatively secular colonists booked passage on two ships—the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Soon after they left port the Speedwell began to leak and the ships returned. After an attempt to fix the Speedwell proved unsuccessful, the majority of that ship’s passengers and its cargo were packed onto the Mayflower, making for an overcrowded voyage.

(Above: the tween deck of the Mayflower II. Photo by Levon Ofgang). 

Due to the Speedwell’s leaks, the Mayflower’s crossing of the Atlantic was delayed from August to September. By that point, the passengers had already been living on the ship for more than a month, which proved to be the least of their problems. With large structures at the front and back of the boat, the Mayflower was said to be top heavy and provided a particularly rocky ride. By September, a stormy season on the Atlantic had begun. The ship departed anyway but the rough seas and storms caused waves to crash over the main deck, causing seasickness and structural damage, and lengthened the voyage significantly.

“It was a difficult journey for the ship, she was severely battered by Atlantic storms one of her main beams cracked and could have endangered the voyage’s completion,” says Richard Pickering, executive director of Plimoth Plantation.

Despite the damage, in late November the ship arrived in Cape Cod, off course from its intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River in New York, which was then considered part of Virginia. Two passengers had died during the voyage, but with the bitter New England winter setting in, more death was on the way.

For the first part of winter, the settlers remained on the Mayflower and fell victim to an infectious disease that left all but 53 settlers dead. Despite this horrific body count, the colony the pilgrims set up thrived and they became part of American history.

Though they were not the first settlers to come to the New World by a long shot, they were among the first who came here not for profit but for a better life. Whether deservedly or not, the pilgrims have come to embody the spirit of the American immigrant dream. It’s that spirit that the Mayflower II was built to celebrate.

THE SECOND VOYAGE, 1957

“Wind, sails and brave sailors”

When the Mayflower II set sail from England in 1957, one newspaper only gave the ship a 50 percent chance of success, according to the Plimoth Plantation. As the museum’s website states, “There were no motors nor chase boats; only wind, sails and brave sailors.”

Those “brave sailors” were emboldened by the dream (some would say mad dream) of Warwick Charlton. A British journalist and colorful character, Charlton wanted to build a reproduction of the Mayflower as a way of thanking the United States for its help in World War II. Despite financial obstacles and occasional derision on both sides of the Atlantic, Charlton was able to raise funds through a combination of ingenuity, luck and sheer moxie.

“My father was, frankly, a wild man,'' his son, Randal, once told the New York Times. ''He offended at one time or another almost everybody he came into contact with.''(Above: crew members in Mystic take down the ship's rigging. Below: a view from the deck of the ship's towering masts. Photos by Levon Ofgang). 

After attracting initial backing for the project Charlton charged admission for guests to see the boat being built. He employed Stuart Upham as shipbuilder, but to ensure the work would be sound, he insisted that Upham agree to take part in the vessel’s transatlantic voyage.

At the same time, Charlton insisted that the boat be made as close to the original as possible; this meant using English oak and making the ship as dangerously top-heavy as the original. Instead of a wheel, it would be steered by a whipstaff—a long, rudder-like piece of rounded wood that moves left and right. Though plans of the original Mayflower do not exist, as Charlton began working on the project he learned that on the other side of the Atlantic, the Plimoth Plantation was also working on a Mayflower reproduction and had conducted significant research on the original ship’s appearance. Charlton and the Plimoth Plantation agreed to collaborate—Plimoth Plantation would provide the ship’s design and historical research, while Charlton’s group would pay for and build the boat, which would ultimately be operated and maintained by Plimoth Plantation.

Historic Mayflower II at Mystic Seaport for Historic Renovations

• • •(Above: the Mayflower II is hauled at Mystic Seaport last week. Photo courtesy of Mystic Seaport). 

In 1951, Plimoth commissioned plans for a new Mayflower. The plans were made by naval architect William A. Baker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Baker meticulously researched written references to the original ship and examined similar ships from the same time period.

“There was only one [official] description of the ship and that’s a bill of sale from 1623 when Mayflower was sold for salvage,” explains Pickering. “That bill of sale is where William A. Baker got the basic information about her size and the amount of tonnage she was able to carry. The look of Mayflower II is based on research he did in this country and in Britain and Europe. Even 60 years later it is considered one of the finest, if not the finest example of, 17th-century maritime reproduction and research.”

Modern changes to the ship include a generator and a large staircase between the main decks and lower decks (on the original ship ladders would have been used). Some historians also believe that the tween deck of the original may have been even more cramped with a lower ceiling. “It has sometimes been conjectured that the tween deck’s a bit higher than it would have been in the 17th century,” Pickering says.For its voyage from England, the ship was captained by Alan Villiers, a former wartime naval commander who is a legendary 20th-century mariner with strong links to Mystic Seaport. Villiers is the former owner of the Joseph Conrad one of the most popular ships at the seaport. In addition, Pickering explains “Mystic Seaport was one of the research facilities that John Huston used when he adapted ‘Moby Dick’ for the screen (in the film’s credits the famous director thanked the Seaport for its assistance). Allan Villiers was the captain of the Pequod that was built for ‘Moby Dick’ and some of the Mayflower II crew from 1957 were also crewmembers for ‘Moby Dick,’ so there’s all of these wonderful connections.”

The Mayflower II set sail from Plymouth, England, in April of 1957. In accordance with regulations, it had a generator and radio but the voyage was completed entirely under sail. The crew endured great risk including a becalming (period without wind) in the lower latitudes, and a violent storm off Bermuda. Ultimately, the ship arrived safe and sound in June after a historic 55-day voyage.

Ever since, the ship has been an almost-constant staple of the Plymouth waterfront where more than 30 million people have visited it. Since the 1990s, the Plimoth Plantation has placed greater emphasis on the ship as a fully functioning sailing vessel. It is in part a wish to maintain that ability that has brought the ship to Connecticut.

THE THIRD VOYAGE, 2014

“A process of discovery”

The Mayflower II last sailed in March when documentary filmmaker Ric Burns shot footage of the vessel under sail for his upcoming PBS documentary, The Pilgrims,” which is scheduled to be broadcast in November 2015. But it has been clear since 2013 that the “new” Mayflower was getting old. Inspections that year revealed that the 57-year-old ship was in need of a major refit, which is normal considering its age. Though the boat is generally dry-docked for minor repairs every other winter, for the major restoration now necessary, Plimoth Plantation has turned to Mystic Seaport’s shipyard, one of the country’s most respected.“New England has many wonderful wooden shipyards, but at Mystic Seaport you have that corps of craftspeople who are not only very fine wooden boatyard people but they’re unrivaled for their knowledge of historic boats,” Pickering says.

Pickering is no stranger to the Seaport; it was there that Pickering worked while getting his Master’s at University of Connecticut before beginning his 30-year-plus career at Plimoth Plantation. The Mayflower II’s captain, Perry, is also intimately familiar with the Seaport. A native of Danbury, Perry was inspired by visiting Mystic Seaport as a kid. When he moved to Massachusetts, he would still stop at the Seaport often while passing through Connecticut. “This is like the holy grail for boat lovers,” he says.

After arriving in Mystic Seaport in early December, the ship was hauled out of the water last week for the beginning of an intensive assessment period. Some repairs were immediately clear—framing and planking below the waterline and several stern posts need to be replaced. Other needs are expected to be identified in the coming days and weeks.

Approximately 100 tons of ballast in the ship’s hold was scheduled to be unloaded for the first time since the ship’s maiden voyage in 1957. No one was sure what to expect under the ballast. “There is always a process of discovery that goes on in the course of the work,” says Quentin Snediker, Mystic Seaport’s shipyard director. “From experience you can make certain assumptions about what you’ll find and sometimes you’re surprised in a positive way and sometimes you’re surprised in a negative way but you don’t know until you open the package.”

In this case “the package” is a 17th-century-style vessel, where the collection at Mystic Seaport focuses on vessels from the late 19th to early 20th century. However, Snediker says the restoration approach does not change. “While the form of the vessel is somewhat different than most of the ships that we focus on in our collection, the techniques of construction are the same, and the materials are essentially the same.”

(Below: a time lapse video of the Mayflower II being hauled courtesy of Mystic Seaport). 

The “voyage” of the ship’s restoration will be a slow and careful one. This year the focus will be on assessment and planning. The ship will return to Plymouth in the spring and come back to Mystic Seaport each winter for continued work until 2020.

The ship’s accessibility to the public is another reason Mystic Seaport was selected to handle the restoration. During its repairs people will be able to experience its beauty and learn about its history and the history of the vessel that it recreates.

“The ship unlike any other ship in American history, is symbolic of that first immigrant in every American's life, unless you are an indigenous American,” Pickering says. “The ship is an important part of our national discussion on immigration.”

Contact me by email eofgang@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and Google +

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)