Adventures In Coastal Iiving :The Cora F Cressy

The pictures are not the best, but please forgive me; it’s a challenge to photograph something that tall. It’s the trailboards ( really the stem boards), and billet head of the five-masted schooner the Cora F. Cressy. The Cressy was a large collier schooner. A collier schooner was one that carried coal to New England from ports to the south in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and the Tidewater ports of Virginia.

Very little other than a pathetic pile of rotting timber remains of her, but if you go to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, you’ll see these impressive stem boards and way, way, way, up high the billet head. The Cressy was not a small ship ( 273 feet ). The large schooners like the Cressy had impressive shear lines with their bows and sterns gracefully reaching above the water. A sailor will always admire a sweet shear. These sweeping lines served a practical purpose. The Cressy, and others like her, were designed and built to carry massive amounts of coal. In the case of Cressy, it’s estimated that she could load 4,000 tons. The sweeping sheer at bow and stern ensured that when fully laden, the ship possessed enough freeboard that she rode safely above the sea’s surface. As a result, the bow embellishment on the Cressy is a very long and elaborate scroll that swept up the stem. Notice that the stem boards were lofted from multiple pieces just as other structural parts, except with the consideration that the carver would be interested in how grain orientation ran for carving.

I came away from the visit impressed with the Cressy. But also a bit mystified. Between 1971 and the end of ’73, I had a live-in carving studio in a little building that had once been an office for a lumberyard on Sherman St. in the Charlestown area of Boston. Adjacent to me at 10 Sherman St. was a towing company called Cressy Transportation. Cressy Transportation was in the business of towing really large broken-down tractors and trailers – not your average AAA tow. I grew friendly with some of the drivers. One day while visiting the office for coffee, I noticed large framed photos of four and five-masted schooners on the wall. Asking about them, they informed me that back when the company had owned a fleet of sailing vessels. The drivers and the clerk had no further information, and eventually, I forgot to follow up on the story behind the photos.

The day I wandered into the Maine Maritime Museum and saw the Cora F Cressy materials on exhibit, I began to put the pieces together.

I confirmed that my recollection that it had been a company named Cressy by hunting through old Boston city directories. In 1969 there they were at 10 Sherman St. I also found the Cressy’s had owned a small fleet of schooners around 1915, but the war years had not been kind to their interests; one was torpedoed in 1917, and another was burned off the coast of France soon after. Fire was a continual hazard for coal schooners due to the flammable nature of the cargo.

The Cora F Cressy, did not have a very long career as a collier. She ultimately wound up as a breakwater, but before that, she found use as a floating nightclub. A bit of trivia that seems to connect the Cressy Family to Cora F. Cressy is that when she became a floating night club, Carl Cressy was given luxury accommodation on her since the vessel was named for his mother.

I have not been able to make a really absolute connection between Cora F Cressy, the Cressy fleet of colliers, or Cressy Transportation. I may never find a link, but I’m stubborn, and I’ll continue to look. It’s part of what makes the interest in maritime history interesting.

Is there a potential ship’s portrait in the offing? I don’t know. Since they consume a lot of time, it’d be a year before my current workload clears up. We’ll see.

New York Pilot Boat 5

This chest was not in stock long enough for me to do a proper set of photos. It sold at it’s first appearance at the Maine Boatbuilder’s Show to a pair of Boston Harbor pilots who were going to give it as a retirement gift to a colleague. The chest itself was of fairly common pine with teak keys for strength and decorative effect.
The top though, that’s some pine of a different pedigree. The pine tree was felled by the great hurricane of 1938. At the time it came down, it had been the tallest tree in the town of Shirley, Massachusetts. Very probably old growth, the entire top was just a segment of the plank I purchased from the retired dairy farmer, who, in true Yankee fashion, refused to let such a good tree go to waste and made it into planks.

The pilot boat itself was pilot number 5 from New York Harbor. Pilot boats had to be extremely fast and able, and this design shows a flexible sail plan and sweet lines. Somewhere I have a slew of pilot boat designs but have not had an opportunity to carve another. Beautiful boats like this are hard to resist.

for a more recent look into New York Harbor pilotage take a look at Tugsters post of a pilot boat mothership:


My father’s favorite ship was the S.S. President Tyler. He sailed aboard it whenever possible from his first voyage around 1932 till he came ashore in 1946, the year I was born. Several World and Asian cruises made him a genuine China Sailor.
Sailors, merchant or naval, can have deep relationships with their ships. Call it loyalty, affection, longing, or call it what it really can be – romance. I know, I have an ache for a certain ketch I’ll never see again. Women are known to jealous of ships and boats. My first mother in law was jealous of the Cap’ns Psyche. For the sake of peace, she hid it well. My mother was not so diplomatic about my father’s love of the sea, and “that ship.” She had been a sea widow throughout their marriage and two pregnancies. Like many sea widow’s, there came a time when the husband was expected to “swallow the anchor.” More than a few arguments ended with my father threatening to go to the hiring hall and “look for a ship.”
So growing up, the Tyler was a sensitive issue. We’d regularly drive along the Hudson River to where the reserve fleet was anchored. He was looking for the Tyler. My mother was never on any of these excursions.

I had seen my father’s pictures onboard the Tyler, But I had never seen a photo of the ship itself. My mother was famous for editing her life, so it’s more than likely that she disposed of those photos when she threw out dad’s cruise scrapbooks. For her, those were not good times.

Many years later, I was teaching marine carving at the WoodenBoat School in Maine. Teaching at WoodenBoat is not just an opportunity to learn. It’s an opportunity to grow as a person through the freindhips formed with the individuals you meet there. One year one of my students was a former Master Mariner who worked for the American Bureau of Shipping. We talked about ships one night, and I told him all that I knew of the Tyler and my father’s affection for the ship. I mentioned that I’d love to carve a portrait of the Tyler but could not find enough data to start the project. I thought no more about the conversation, and at the end of the course, said goodbye to my students and returned to Massachusetts.

About three weeks later, a large envelope arrived from the ABS (American Bureau of Shipping). In it was were copies of plans and articles relating to the class of vessel to which the Tyler had belonged; enough to start the portrait. My student had searched the ABS library for the documentation that I needed.

The Tyler was my first large portrait. I can now look at it and see a dozen things that I would and could do differently with twenty years of experience carving portraits. But when you finish a project it’s best to move on, or you’ll never finish.

It sails on my wall with a cherry ocean and sky heading east from Japan or China towards Los Angelos. I think my father is pleased that his ship is restored to an essential place in our lives, through the unexpected kindness of a fellow seaman.

R.M.S. Servia – 1881

I’ve been interested in steam/sail transition vessels for years. Ships with steam Auxillary and later sail auxiliary revolutionized travel at sea. Oceanic travel was no longer at the mercy of the winds.
Servia has the distinction of three significant innovations in passenger travel: the first passenger liner built of steel, first liner built with electric lighting, and significantly improved accommodations for third-class passengers. Elegantly fitted out as she was, she lasted a bare year as the Cunard flagship. Servia failed to win the coveted trophy, the Blue Ribband, awarded to ships making record crossings of the Atlantic.

The Blue Ribband

Built-in 1881 by 1900, she was being sailed under bare poles, dependent on her steam engines. Servia was sent to the scrapers by 1910.

I have portrayed Servia as she might have looked on her first voyage to New York. Graceful, under a press of sail. Her modified barque rig is propelling Servia towards New York Harbor.
Framed by a shop built teak frame, Servia is primarily constructed of cherry with mixed media detail parts and paint. Servia itself is LOA (length overall) 18.75 inches (476.25 millimeters). The portrait framed is 29.25 inches wide (743 millimeters) and 12.5 inches ( 314.5 millimeters) tall.

Acorns to Oaks

We all want to be instant experts. One of my sensei describes this in terms of the training montages that are standard fare in martial arts movies; the neophyte progresses from clumsy beginner to skilled pro in thirty seconds of cinematic snapshots. The rest of us suffer from dissatisfaction and disappointment from being less than optimal for much longer.
Not every time, but more frequently than I’d like, I get confronted with the unique. And, all of a sudden I am a neophyte once more. Incorporating new materials, using new types of paints, complex constructions, and most especially very small parts that need fabrication all create confrontations with the problematic.

When I was doing banners, quarter boards, transoms, and the odd eagle, the problems were mostly mechanical – design layout, curvature to fit, and calculating shadows in carved lettering.

Boat and ship portraits offer many more issues. I am presenting a practice piece of the very first boat portrait I ever did. Remember, practice pieces are exactly like the rough sketches you do of a subject before you paint – the practice is to work out the approach, shapes, and rendering before you start the actual work. Being that carving is subtractive, this saves you from ruining expensive wood and wasting time.

Over the years, I’ve done many portraits. I’ve borrowed techniques from model makers, painters, and illustrators. I’ve also had to develop some tricks of my own. The single most important thing will seem trite: challenge is what differentiates those who are growing from those who are standing still intellectually and as artists.

There are about two years between my first practice piece and my rendering of a cat boat for a mast hoop portrait. Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that’s left before fitting into the hoop

Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that's left before fitting into the hoop
Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that’s left before fitting into the hoop.


Unless you have strict deadlines hanging over you project completion becomes a flexible goal. The little eagle in the picture was started at the end of June as a demonstration of carving in very sub-optimal wood. It should have been completed weeks ago, but work on gilding was held up while I waited for a period when I could gild without large amounts of dust ruining the gold leaf. On the other hand, the little Town Class sloop is handily racing towards early completion. It’s destined to be a Christmas present and will be done as soon as I sand and varnish the mast hoop that it is going to be mounted in.

In the machine shop, there is a large bucket of spoon and spatula blanks that have been roughly carved, and are now waiting for finishing. I finished the blanks in August. They are what made the carving shop unsuitable for gilding. The bench in the machine shop is covered with cherry planks destined for a large ship portrait (an 1880’s era composite steam/ sail vessel). I have to finish jointing the boards and make final decisions on the arrangements of the planks before gluing up the blank. To ensure that blanks are stable and won’t split open after carving they have to cure for a few weeks before I start carving. So while I am very excited about the project I know that I won’t start it till January. More likely to see early completion are a few blanks destined for portraits of small catboats that I hope to take to a winter show.

So completion gets to be an elastic phenomenon. Clients complicate this elasticity; they want their portrait in time for an anniversary, birthday or before launching so the new quarter boards, billet head or transom eagle can be installed. The carver, boatbuilder or other craftsperson learn to plan. Eisenhower said that: “in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Although he never worked in a boatyard or carvers shop he had it right. You spend time planning, but admit that strict plans don’t always work well in small craft shops. That’s why there is that large rick of planks in the rafters – just in case. That’s why you have models, templates and notes on practice pieces for all your projects – in case you have to do it again.
Plans are certain to go awry: the wood needed is hard to find in local yards, the gilding has to wait, the paint or varnish is dry, but not cured, so, we have to wait. Most importantly to the company’s cash flow – The deposit has not been paid so now everything has to wait.


A Boat Portrait Carved In Wood

Much of my business in the past 27 years or so has been portraits of ships and boats. It all began at a crafts show at New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. I had been making trays out of mast hoops for some time. I carved a variety of themes including an elegant Compass Rose design I had created. Towards the end of the day, a woman stopped by and asked if I could carve her husband’s Eltro 19″ powerboat onto a tray. That was the tray that started a line of products that have proven to be a gratifying part of my business. I’ve even made some money on it.
I have carved portraits in hoops from eight inches ( internal radius) up to about twenty-seven inches. Not all designs look great when overly compressed, and you have to be honest with potential commissioners about what is realistic in a standard size hoop. A carving of the Titanic won’t work in an eight-inch circle! Most people want something modest in a twelve-inch hoop. I try to avoid anything smaller than a ten for a portrait.
I prefer to carve my portraits in cherry. Carving in cherry is not for the faint of heart who do their carving in basswood. Cherry is hard, durable, and it is tight grained. Cherry takes and holds fine detail, an important consideration when carving a hull which might measure out to be six inches in length. The cherry grain pattern behind the boat gives the appearance of water, waves, sky and horizon lines; saving you from having to carve in those features. Nature’s provision looks more natural than what you can carve with a tool.
I’ve selected a series of pictures from completed portraits to illustrate boat portraiture in wood. No robot carving.

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