A team of volunteers build a replica of the Virginia, the ship built by the Popham Colony in their settlement at the mouth of the Kennebec River in 1607.
BATH, Maine – The sound was apparent as visitors climbed the scaffolding – the smooth, unmistakable rhythm of a handsaw cutting through wood.
This saw was in the hands of Fred Fauver, who said he had worked with wood for years, both as a job and as a hobby.
“I’ve been making sawdust almost all my life,” he said.
But all of those skills needed a slight tweak when he volunteered to help build a wooden sailboat.
“It was new,” admitted Fauver. “I usually deal with right angles and straight lines, and as you can see this is built with everything but right angles and straight lines.”
It helps to build – recreate, in fact – a piece of Maine history.
A team of volunteers builds a replica of Virginia, the ship built by the Popham Colony at its settlement at the mouth of the Kennebec River in 1607. The Virginia is considered the first European-built ship in the New World.
The project began about two decades ago as a dream, a way to celebrate the first English settlement in Maine, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth.
Archaeologists have found traces of this short-lived settlement over the years, but there was little information about the ship. Researchers dug through old records in London and checked into the Jamestown settlement and eventually drew a drawing of what the roughly 50ft boat, called a pinnace, would have looked like.
“We know the shipbuilder was called Digby and was from London,” said Jeremy Blaikloch, board member of Maine’s First Ship, the organization set up to bring that dream to life. “And if Digby was walking around here, he’d be like, ‘I sort of recognize him. “”
The work is done entirely by volunteers, about 160 in all, over the project’s 13 years, according to Kirstie Truluck, executive director of Maine’s First Ship and the only paid staff member.
Even the shipbuilder overseeing the work is a volunteer. Rob Stevens has his own shipyard, he said, but has given over a decade of time to ensure the Virginia is properly constructed.
“I always say if I build a yacht, I make a family happy. But if I do something like that, hundreds and hundreds of people will benefit,” Stevens said.
He joked about much of the work being done by people with no boat building skills and how long it took to get the job done, but then said Virginia was “a pretty boat”.
In about a month, the world will finally be able to see it.
Through all the years of construction, downtime and COVID delays, the ship has sat inside a large, plastic-covered white house, almost literally in the shadow of Bath Bridge.
“I call it Bath’s best kept secret because it’s been hidden for over a decade,” Truluck said.
Visitors are welcomed on Wednesdays and Saturdays, where they can view the work in progress and learn more about the project and history inside the former riverside cargo shed which is home to the first Maine ship.
Stevens, the master boat builder, thinks visitors leave impressed.
“You’ll see people you know will never forget that they had a chance to walk in and see a wooden boat being built,” Stevens said.
On June 4, they will be able to see this boat meet the river. The plastic cover will be removed. Then, large cranes will lift the Virginia from its construction location and then place it in the Kennebec River.
Volunteers say it will be a huge thrill to see their creation float, but the job won’t get done.
The 65ft mast, made from one of the famous Bowdoin pines, will be raised and more spars will be placed. Then the handcrafted rigging ropes will be installed.
“The rigging will be the main thing to do and put up the masts,” said Elise Straus-Bowers, who has volunteered on the project for about three years.
She shared some uncertainty about whether there will be more work she can do once that time comes.
“Well, he said, ‘Can you come up on the mast?’ I said, “If you have a harness! I’ve never been in a mast chair, but I’m ready to do it,” Straus-Bowers said with a laugh.
Once all the work is done, it’s time to learn to sail the Virginia, whose 1607 lineup of masts and sails is sure to be unlike anything else on the Maine coast.
The ship will be “85 to 90 percent” historically correct, Stevens said.
But it will have an engine and a propeller because, in its new life, the Virginia will carry school classes and other passengers and will have to guarantee that they will return to dock on time, whatever the winds.
The replica ship will be a moving museum and classroom to tell the story of the river and the story of who built it and why.
And to honor the daring settlers of Popham Colony, who built the original Virginia over four centuries ago on the same river.
Their establishment did not last long, but in the years to come others would follow with their ships. And some would stay to build Maine.