The stories of Capt. Zeb Tilton and his coastal schooner Alice S. Wentworth have come alive again in North Tisbury. A replica of the famous 1905 schooner is on the Island, and she is only 32 inches long.
Richard T. Olsen commissioned the model not so much for himself, he said, but for his family, friends and the Vineyard community. Mr. Olsen is the grandson of the famous Vineyard Haven sailor.
Alice S. Wentworth was one of the last working coastal schooners that sailed the waters of southeastern New England. She comes from an age when hundreds of schooners moved up and down the coast, doing the business of the region. They were the tractor trailers of a sailing age, an age before asphalt highways and diesel trucks. Coastal schooners transported timber, coal, brick and stone — anything that was too heavy for horse-drawn carts and trucks.
The schooner and her Vineyard captain were the subject of books, articles, even a June 2008 80-minute movie produced in Edgartown and circulated widely. The movie is called Zeb: The Schooner Life. Media attention about the man, his journeys and the life of the vessel spans the 20th century and this last decade.
Though Capt. Tilton died in 1952, his legacy has received another gust of wind with the arrival of the model on the Island and Mr. Olsen’s passion for keeping the story alive.
The ship model was researched and created by Herbert “Bert” William Cresey Jr. of Merrimack, a native of the Boston era and the son of a tug boat captain who turned to model making some 30 years ago. Mr. Cresey said he began the model in his basement seven months ago, and spent hundreds of hours on it, from a few hours to a whole day at a time. The project included diving into records, looking at old photographs, numerous consultations, and working with wood, cloth for the sails and string for lines and rigging. The core of the model is a solid piece of basswood that had been part of the model maker’s stash.
“I learned a lot about Zeb building this boat,” Mr. Cresey said. “Most schooners are different. But Zeb rigged this boat for more deck space, to carry more cargo. Zeb took the schooner up another notch.”
Part of the magic of the old schooner is tied to the mystery. For instance, there is not a lot of certainty on her length. Mr. Cresey built the model based on the belief the schooner was 83 to 84 feet in length, which would have made her slightly smaller than the schooner Alabama that resides in Vineyard Haven.
Because of the changes in the life of the vessel, Mr. Cresey said that he and Mr. Olsen picked a specific period to represent with the model. “Zeb changed a lot of things when he got her. Everything that was on the boat is in the model,” Mr. Cresey said. For instance, Mr. Cresey discovered Zeb added an extended bowsprit. “Zeb added it to gain more sail,” Mr. Cresey said.
Mr. Cresey also made a small separate model of the interior of the captain’s quarters, a cabin in the stern of the vessel that includes a pot belly stove. It’s no bigger than a cigar box. Quoting Mr. Olsen’s instructions, Mr. Cresey said: “I want it to look like when Zeb sailed her.”
Mr. Olsen said he has a strong personal motivation for commissioning the project. He has a childhood memory of his grandfather by marriage, the man who crafted the ship. “He was a huge man. I remember vaguely. He was unshaven. I remember sitting on his knee. I remember his heavy wool black pants.” But even more clearly, Mr. Olsen remembers seeing the schooner. “I remember seeing her in Woods Hole,” Mr. Olsen said. Mr. Olsen’s father, John T., worked on the boat as a crewman. He married Zeb’s daughter Ruth.
“I really got into this because it is family. I wanted my children and my grandchildren to know who Zeb was. It is about making people aware,” Mr. Olsen said.
The model now sits prominently in the family house. Mr. Olsen has a modern day parallel story comparable to his grandfather; he runs a excavating business called Richard T. Olsen and Son and is a captain of the Island’s roads — said he has plenty of ideas about what he might do to share it with others.