Bath keel laying marks 1st step in replica of historic ship

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BATH — The laying of a keel during Heritage Days this weekend may make some people want to party like it’s 1607.

It’s been about 400 years since the pinnace Virginia, built at the Popham colony in 1607-1608, sailed out of history and into mystery. But the first European ship ever built in New England is expected to appear again in the waters of the Kennebec River, thanks to the longtime efforts of the Maine’s First Ship group.

Given Bath’s shipbuilding heritage in the years since the Popham Colony came and went, the Virginia project has remained afloat, even under pressures from a tough economy.

The keel – essentially the backbone of a ship, from which the hull is built – will be laid at a 19th century freight shed at the corner of Commercial and Lambard streets at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 3, beginning the reconstruction of the approximately 50-foot vessel.

The Jamestown colony in Virginia tends to resonate more in history than its partner English colonial mission, which wound up hundreds of miles up the coast and was named for the venture’s financier, Sir John Popham.

Unlike Jamestown, the Popham Colony lasted only a little more than a year and was brought to its end by Popham’s death and a harsh winter. Besides the Virginia, which brought many surviving colonists back to England, the men also built the walled settlement called Fort St. George.

Tony Gibbs, a Maine’s First Ship board member, called the pinnace a “sturdy little craft” and noted that a naval architect and shipwright identified in the colony’s records as Digby of London designed the Virginia and supervised its construction.

One challenge to the reconstruction mission is the lack of any plans for the original vessel. A sketch on a contemporary map suggests the Virginia’s appearance, and a research team has investigated English ship design and construction of the 17th century and connected that information with other historical rebuilds, Gibbs said.

One of the researchers, John Bradford, discusses that work in a forthcoming book, and Maine naval architect David Wyman drew up reconstruction plans. Gibbs said those plans marry the greatest amount of historical accuracy with current U.S. Coast Guard vessel safety requirements. One modern touch is a diesel engine that will add speed to the ship’s travels.

The eye toward historic accuracy means the shipbuilders will use native New England woods, like long-leaf yellow pine and white oak.

Maine’s First Ship’s journey has had its ups and downs, but recent history suggests a more optimistic future. Last year the organization saw the construction of the Jane Stevens, an historic type of craft called a shallop that is rowed and sailed. Morse High School students built the 18-foot vessel and launched it last summer with guidance from shipwright Will West, science teacher Eric Varney and filmmaker Patti Irish.

Gibbs noted that the shallop effort created enough enthusiasm to bolster the original reconstruction process. The process will not be quick and easy, though: a $1.2 million estimated cost in belt-tightening times and a schedule encompassing about four years lay ahead. Maine’s First Ship looks for donations from sources throughout New England not just to build the vessel, but for maintenance.

“We probably could not have picked a more difficult economic climate to restart this project,” Gibbs said, adding that it is “better to restart it than to just sit there and wring your hands.”

He noted that “one thing about a vessel like this is, it brings home in unmistakable terms how demanding life was for those people who came across. … And the fact that they didn’t let events or shortages stop them.”

Four hundred years later, a group of people wanting to build another Virginia are working by the same rule.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Sidebar Elements

Bath Heritage Days runs July 1-4.

Celebrating independence

Besides the Independence Day events taking place at Bath Heritage Days from Friday, July 1, to Monday, July 4, there will be fireworks at Cook’s Lobster House on Bailey Island.

The celebration will be at 68 Garrison Cove Road at 10 p.m. Tuesday, July 5.

In Brunswick, free youth games will be held on the Mall on Monday, July 4, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Activities include three-legged, sack, wheelbarrow and balloon races, orange relays and pie and watermelon eating contests.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.