Maine’s reputation for boatbuilding excellence came into play during the recent HMS Bounty hearings in Portsmith, Virginia. The purpose of the panel was to evaluate the possible causes contributing to the ship’s tragic sinking and loss of life in Hurricane Sandy; what they got, among other things, was a graduate-level lesson on wooden ship building.by L. Jaye Bell
Coastal Journal contributor
BOOTHBAY — Maine’s reputation for boatbuilding excellence came into play during the recent HMS Bounty hearings in Portsmith, Virginia. The purpose of the panel was to evaluate the possible causes contributing to the ship’s tragic sinking and loss of life in Hurricane Sandy. The panel did not expect a lesson in the construction and repair of traditionally built wooden ships.
The surprise lesson added a fascinating glimpse into wooden ships, as Joe Jackimovicz, former yard manager at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, shared his knowledge with a new generation of mariners. It was evident from the questions posed by lead investigator, U.S. Coast Guard Commander Kevin Carroll, that the practical knowledge that he possessed wasn’t something they had everyday access to.
Now retired, Jackimovicz is a 40-year veteran of the maritime industry, with extensive experience building and repairing wooden hulled vessels, including the Victory Chimes. During the two hours of his detailed testimony, he gave the Coast Guard panel a generous toe-dip into the past, to a world that they seldom have had the opportunity to see in this rapidly advancing age of technology. When Jackimovicz was finished, everyone in the room was listening with the kind of intensity found in a more scholarly setting.
To determine what went wrong in the ships demise, all aspects must be examined that could possibly have contributed to the ship’s sinking. The HMS Bounty was a traditionally built vessel, constructed in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in 1960. At the time, the marine industry was changing, setting the stage for a new wave of hull materials made from fiberglass composites. This kicked traditional boatbuilding yards into decline, so the excitement over building a traditional ship such as the HMS Bounty ran high.
There are two basic methods of hull construction. Both start as a ribbed frame that is attached to a keel. The ribs curve out from the backbone, like ribs on an animal or human body. Planks are then attached to the ribs in one of two ways. Clinker-built vessels have planks that overlap slightly. By contrast, carvel planking is lined up edge-to-edge. The seams between planks are sealed with cotton or oakum, (hemp saturated with tar oil) and a caulking agent to seal the seam. The job requires a robust burst of human effort, as two people must work in tandem to drive the material into the seams tightly, so that they are flush with the surface of the hull. These time-tested methods have been used since the beginning of man’s fascination for messing about in boats until the industrial revolution, when the demands for a faster transport of cargo fueled the development of the messier if more reliable iron-hulled steamers.
So where does a 50-year-old, 350-ton, carvel-planked vessel in need of hull repair turn for help? This isn’t a question of consulting the marine equivalent of the Yellow Pages. Sadly, there aren’t many options left. Three facilities in the midcoast specialize in wooden-hull vessel repair and reconstruction. Rockport Marine focuses on restoring classic wooden yachts and smaller schooners up to 55 tons. With regard to tonnage, Billings Diesel is next, servicing vessels with a haul-out capacity of 275 tons. For anything larger than that, Boothbay Harbor Shipyard has the greatest capacity for handling the unique demands of large vessel restoration at 700 tons.
What is now known as Boothbay Shipyard started as Townsend Marine Railway. Formed out of the rising tide of Maine’s bustling maritime industry in 1869, the railway was operated by a steam engine that was eventually converted into a regular motor near the turn of the 20th century. Renamed the Atlantic Coast Company in 1917, the yard promptly whipped out six four-masted schooners by 1920. When the yard’s name changed again to Samples Shipyard, the focus shifted as well, from wind-powered cargo carriers to Navy minesweepers, salvage tugs and rescue boats. As late as the 1960s, the yard was constructing wooden-hulled draggers. Since then, the focus has been larger yachts, commercial vessels, and tall ships.
Judging from his testimony at the hearings, Jackimovicz’s experience in wooden-hull restoration is vast. In our telephone interview after the hearings, the retired yard manager detailed more of his experience.
“Gazela is the largest vessel I’ve hauled out, at 154 feet long, she weighs 650 tons,” he said. “Three-quarters of the boats I’ve hauled were fishing boats. Half of those are wooden vessels, most of which were old boats that were in their ‘death throes.’ A boat would come on, have work done, and keep coming back for more work until they were eventually taken out of service. The owners would realize the condition of the vessel, and recognize the limits of operating safely within the confines of what they had.”
Most captains and owners understand the delicate juggle between time, money and repairs. The goal is to extend the life of the vessel as much as possible, up until the point it becomes obvious that the safe operation of the ship is no longer possible, and that it is in fact, beyond recovery.
When the HMS Bounty was included in the MGM purchase by Ted Turner, it was something of a surprise. When his accountant questioned the expenses for boat dockage, they looked into it. As it turns out, the Bounty had been an unknown part of the deal. Turner donated the ship to The Marine Museum at Fall River, in Fall River, Mass. The museum had done some repair work on the bottom, but a very important element was lacking in order to complete the repairs due to financial constraints: Anti-fouling paint – a specialized coating applied to the hull of a vessel to slow the growth of organisms that attach to the hull – was not used after the repairs were completed. And the ship sailed to Florida for its winter berth and dockside tours, where anti-fouling paint is very much required for wooden vessels.
“They did this for a couple of years,” Jackimovicz continues. “What they didn’t realize was that the hull was a ripe environment for teredo worms.”
“Teredo worms” is misleading; these aren’t worms, but saltwater bivalve mollusks. They are notorious for destroying wood that is immersed in salt water, having earned the nickname, “termites of the sea.”
“The museum realized that they could not handle the costs of upkeep,” said Jackimovicz.
That’s when Bob Hansen came into the picture. He purchased the vessel, and knew that it was in a leaky condition. But not until the ship was hauled out the first time in Boothbay did anyone learn the extent of the damage.
“When she arrived for that first haul out in August of 2001,” said Jackimovicz, “she was leaking 30,000 gallons an hour. That’s 500 gallons a minute.”
By this time, Jackimovicz had been working at the yard for over 20 years, and had seen a number of leaky boats, so that estimate seemed excessive to him.
“When they hauled the boat out, then I believed,” he said. “It was fantastic the amount of water coming out. It was all riddled with wormholes. Optimistically, the new owner thought that it would be a matter of caulking repairs, of putting new caulking in the seams, but the damage was deeper than that. So he decided to replace all of the planking. That’s what we did the first time.”
Bounty spent months in the yard for that first reconstruction from August of 2001 until the spring of 2002. She spent another year on the hard from 2006-2007. A third haul-out was late in the season in 2010, and the final time was in October 2012.
When Bounty was back in the water again last October, Jackimovicz asked Captain Walbridge how the boat was doing.
“‘The boat’s doing great, it’s nice and tight,’” said Jackimovicz. “But the captain’s definition of tight is different; it’s based on the relationship to the amount of water that the ship was leaking from the first time.”
The comparison of 30,000 gallons an hour to 50 gallons an hour is relative.
In his testimony at the hearings, Jackimovicz emphasized the fact that, basically, they were working with an old boat. He stressed that the importance of the original structure of the vessel counts in aging a boat, not the amount of repairs or the amount of planking replaced or cosmetic issues.
“When an old boat gets into the seaway, it’s going to leak,” said Jackimovicz. “Wave action starts working on the hull, and it starts moving, which loosens up the caulking. Moisture is also a key factor in another area of wooden hull construction, if it’s present in the wood at the time it’s formed. Green wood is better for this purpose, and when combined with steam, it makes the wood much more pliable. Drier wood won’t bend like green wood will. The rule of thumb in the industry is for every one inch thickness of planking, it takes a year to air-dry that wood.”
Amidst the traditional construction and history lesson, another concept came to light: The use of non-traditional materials in the marine field. As technology advances and new materials are adapted for other uses, it becomes increasingly prudent to test the efficacy of potentially viable products. One of these solutions was the use of Ice & Water Shield, a product manufactured by W.R. Grace. Jackimovicz had previously used it on his home, and thought the application would be sound for marine use.
“Someone suggested it to the captain, and he asked me about it,” said Jackimovicz. “I told him that it would probably work for a good period of time, maybe five or 10 years, but it’s not a permanent fix.”
During the hearing, when John Svendsen, the first mate, asked if it was an appropriate use of the product, Jackimovicz said, “Yes, but you tell me, you’re the one living under that deck.”
Svendsen nodded in agreement, and said, “I like to sleep in a dry bunk.”