When the topsail schooner Shenandoah goes sailing this summer, credit for some of the work this spring in preparing the beautiful wooden vessel for another season goes to a 26-year-old West Tisbury resident. Working in his shop in the woods, Myles Thurlow built and restored several important spars on the 47-year-old Shenandoah.
Mr. Thurlow’s reputation is well known on the Vineyard Haven waterfront, and his work on the Shenandoah marks his largest project to date. Weighing 800 pounds, the Shenandoah’s fore boom is 34 feet long and made of angelique. Timber for restoring the boom was donated by Ralph Packer of Vineyard Haven.
Mr. Thurlow has rigged every boat built at the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway since the 65-foot schooner Juno was completed and launched in 2003.
The new 28-foot sloop, Naima, launched last Saturday at Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, was completely rigged by Mr. Thurlow, working in concert with the boatbuilders. The 40-foot tall hollow Sitka spruce mast and 18-foot boom gleamed in the sun like well-polished furniture at the boat launching. In contrast, Shenandoah’s spars are painted white and black, as befits a working boat from another century.
In a recent interview at his shop, Mr. Thurlow spoke about his work. “The thing that is difficult is making it fair over the long length of the spar,” he explained. His work space is almost as long as a bowling alley, with plenty of room for movement and ample natural light from a bank of windows. He keeps a wide assortment of woodworking tools, including saws, planers, sanders and hand-held chisels.
Mr. Thurlow inched his way into this line of work following a childhood that was colored by a love of sailing and working on boats. As a youngster he hung out at the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, doing whatever was needed. As a teenager he designed and built a 28-foot Noman’s Land boat named Mabel. The two-masted ketch is the flagship of Vineyard Voyagers, a youth sailing program.
Along the way he developed an interest in spars and rigging for wooden boats. “It is just, one thing led to another,” he said. “I wanted to work on boats. It is an evolution that points to a specialty. It is nice to have a focus,” he added.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Thurlow shipped off a steel container loaded with spars for a schooner being built in Suriname, South America. The 42-foot schooner is a copy of the Vineyard Haven Alden schooner Malabar II, owned by Capt. Jim Lobdell. “The boat is being built at the sawmill where Gannon and Benjamin get most of their hardwood,” he said. The builder is Mark La Plume, who has also worked on the Vineyard.
“We shipped everything, spars, standing and running rigging, hardware, sails and anchor,” Mr. Thurlow said. And because everything had to fit in the 40-foot container, Mr. Thurlow said the 48-foot mast had to be made in two sections, to be glued together at a later time.
“It was kind of neat, because it was something that will get locked together,” he said.
Two years ago, Mr. Thurlow built a new boom for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s 81-year-old catboat Vanity. In fact, he had to make two 26-foot eastern white spruce booms. The first one was fine, but a short time after it was cut, the tip of the boom took its own turn and began pointing in the wrong direction. That first boom now stands as a crooked mast at Mr. Thurlow’s woodshop with a television antenna attached to the top. The second boom was perfect.
And his work is not confined to wooden boats. Two weeks ago, Mr. Thurlow finished rebuilding a 52-foot flagpole next to the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown. Because part of the pole was rotted, he put a scarf joint in, attaching what was still a good top mast to a new eight-foot-long bottom.
And that is part of the magic of helping to restore old spars. Oftentimes 95 per cent of the wood is in pristine shape and just one end needs help. Using clever cutting and strong adhesives, resins and glues, Mr. Thurlow is able to give his customers a better boom or mast without taking down a huge tree. Boatbuilders often use adhesives that are stronger than the wood they bond.
For the Shenandoah, Mr. Thurlow built a brand new brown heartwood jib boom (a jib boom extends the length of the bowsprit). He also made the new 34-foot angelique fore boom, and repaired the 30-foot Douglas fir fore-gaff.
And he repaired the bottom end of the 40-foot Douglas foretop mast, one of the ship’s two highest vertical spars that reach to the sky.
Morgan Douglas, a member of the family that owns the old schooner and director of the Shenandoah Foundation, said this week these are challenging times for the owners of historic wooden boats. “You have to make decisions that are often tough, whether you can afford to make the repairs or not. The story of the repairs of Shenandoah ties to the fact that we have some very capable guys here on the Island like Myles who can do the job locally,” he said.
Also a musician who is accomplished on the pennywhistle, Mr. Thurlow said he often plays music at the end of the workday and finds it gives him a nice release from the physical efforts of woodworking. In the winter, he plays in an Irish band with Gregg Harcourt and Mary Wolverton at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs. “The only problem now is that I am too busy to practice, so I am not getting that release,” he said.