Ted Box of Vineyard Haven hopes to launch his 70-plus-foot schooner, a scow, in June. The building of the wooden boat in full view on a vacant lot of the Boch property off Beach Road is visually arresting. The boat building project began over a year ago and is picking up pace.
Recently, Mr. Box took a break from putting in one of the cypress planks to talk with the Gazette. A heavy plank measuring 20 feet in length, 7 1/2 inches wide and 2 3/4 inches thick was ready to be secured. Attaching the plank, alone and by hand, is more than a tactical dance. Each board is very heavy and bending one requires a lot of force. With the help of leverage, an old metal clamp and 50 years of boatbuilding, Mr. Box makes the work look easier than it is.
He began planking the port side of the vessel in the fall and as of this week the starboard side is almost done. The planks are milled on site from huge cypress trees, 140 to 150 years old, brought up from South Carolina.
“When this [type of] boat was developed, those trees were saplings,” Mr. Box said.
Mr. Box said he is accustomed to long boat building projects. He believes this one will be completed in 18 months, as planned, and ready to go in the water in June.
Mr. Box, 67, is a shipwright. He is also an avid ballroom dancer, some say one of the Island’s best, and an arts enthusiast. His prowess for building and restoring wooden boats goes back to his youth. He built his first significant wooden boat, a 22-foot Block Island sailboat, when he was 26 years old. He started building it in Provincetown in February of 1971 and it was in the water by Columbus Day of the same year.
The current schooner, to be named Seeker, is a tribute to all the shipwrights who taught him his skills.
“It is a way to honor them,” he said. The idea for building Seeker was born in 1969 when he met Howard I. Chapelle, an expert in maritime boat building. Mr. Chapelle wrote the book American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development and Construction. They met at the Smithsonian Institution.
“He was the founder of the watercraft collection at the Smithsonian,” Mr. Box said. “When I went to visit him, he would tell his secretary to hold all calls. To him, wooden boat builders were the most important people in his world.”
“The plans for Seeker came out of his book,” Mr. Box said. Scows were built for utilitarian purposes. They were big boats used for hauling heavy cargo.
In 1981 Mr. Box helped restore the 48-foot wooden boat Raider, first built in 1905, which belongs to Robert S. Douglas and is still housed in the steel-roofed concrete building at Five Corners.
Mr. Box’s sailboat, though perhaps the largest built in Vineyard Haven in generations, resembles a box or a pram. It is hard-chined, and principally flat bottomed. Seeker is like another wooden skow built on Beach Road in 1979, a 40-foot sloop named Lily. Lily was built by Rick Brown who still builds boats on the waterfront. When she left the Vineyard years ago, she was converted from a sloop to a ketch and then to a schooner. She still sails today and her name hasn’t changed.
Seeker’s two nearly-finished masts are made of spruce and await further attention behind the boat shed. The tallest mast will rise up 55 feet above deck. True to a schooner, Seeker will be gaff-rigged.
Mr. Box said his vessel is principally a sailing craft. But in case the need arises, she will also be equipped with auxiliary diesel power.
While she will be used to haul heavy cargo, Mr. Box also sees the vessel serving as a theatre, homeported in Vineyard Haven. He imagines improvisational dancing onboard and musical performances, a veritable floating arts center. He wants the vessel to be used to work with kids “at risk.”
“I see it as a clear space,” Mr. Box said, which translates to a no-alcohol, non-violent, safe space.
Mr. Box has received a lot of support from old and new friends. “Bob Douglas has dropped in,” Mr. Box said. He said he is struck by Mr. Douglas’s ability to have an overview, a perspective that is detached but incredibly knowledgeable. Mr. Box said he sees himself as being focused on the immediate, the what is at hand now. Mr. Douglas’s observations “have made it a better boat,” Mr. Box said.
Boatbuilding, especially this highly visible project, has great karma, Mr. Box said. He didn’t have all the money up front to build the boat, but the enthusiasm of others has helped along the way. His friend Bill Mabie of Vineyard Haven donated a large box of marine bronze bolts. “It would have been hundreds of dollars to buy,” Mr. Box said. He was also able to sell some of the excess cypress.
Dylan Cole and his brother Skyler, 15 year old twins attending the Charter School and living in Falmouth, show up regularly after school to help, too.
“I wish I had kept a better log,” Mr. Box admitted. The stories, thoughts, details and list of significant contributors and supporters has grown quite long.