Smallest YT in the Navy?

As you may know I like to carve portraits of ships and boats. So I studiously snap photos of anything I find on the water that’s of interest.

A few years ago I visited a friend in Boston, and stopped to visit the USS Constitution. Alongside I found this. I’m not sure if I should refer to it as a mini tug or a mini tender. In any case It’s duly marked as Navy. Hmmmmmm…. an ensign’s command? Crew of one?

Sails For The Constitution

This post is about the USS Constitution’s sails. But there is a bit of a story that precedes it.

My eldest son, Nick, could be a problem when he was young. There was the time, at age nine, he disappeared at the WoodenBoat Show. To Matilda and I, he was among the missing. His mother anxiously wondered if Nick had slipped into the cold Maine waters. A frantic search of the entire boat show turned up no Nick.
Then I spotted him at the very end of a long line of large yachts tied up to the pier. He was at a party for the show elites.
After spotting him from a distance onboard an absolutely to die for Baltic style schooner, I had to negotiate my way through the owner’s security detail…while Nick stood there and smiled at me. After clarifying that that boy was my son, they explained that he was a guest, and I was not. Afterward, Matilda had to reason with me until I could see the humor of the situation.

How had Nick become a guest? It was exquisite. Nick evaded his mother while I was working my booth. He set out to wander the show with a brand new dollar bill in his pocket. My son is no slouch, and he’d spent formative years listening to my friends and me discuss boats. So, Nick walked up to the owner of the said gorgeous boat, pulled out his crisp dollar bill, looks up at the owner, and said – “Mister, if I give you this dollar bill right now…will you sell me this boat?”
Ahh, the essence of the moment; cute kid, money, and the intent to close a fiscal deal at a significant advantage to oneself. How could a capitalist not admire the Moxie, and audacity of the attempt?
Result: one invitation to post-show soiree as a guest of honor.

This ploy’s success was so good that Nick continued to use it boat show after boat show. He deployed it with much success and regularity that we had to eventually forbid him from doing it because some of my friends had junker boats they’d happily sell him to laugh at me.

Nick eventually seemed to outgrow his little routine, and I began to forget about it. But one Saturday, we were in Boston to visit a friend at the shipyard. We decided to detour for a look at the USS Constitution. As we were standing there admiring the ship, I saw the then Captain, Commander Beck. I pointed him out to Nick and then saw that old gleam come into his eyes. He reached into his pocket and began walking in the direction of Commander Beck. I lost no time and grabbed my boy. I glanced over at the Captain of the Constitution. I noticed that he was gazing at the man and boy with a dollar bill in his hand. To Nick, I said, perhaps a bit too loudly – “If you embarrass me in front of the Captain of the Constitution, I’ll sell you to the Navy as a Powder Monkey.
Nick seemed to realize that he’d pushed things as far as they’d go and agreed that a frigate was more ship than he wanted anyway.
Commander Beck had recently been the first captain of the Constitution to handle her under sail in years. So on the way home, I explained to Nick why this was such a big deal.

So now the story about sails for the USS Constitution:

In 1966 I had been a very wet behind the ears enlisted man in the Navy. Sometime between Gemini recovery deployments ( the space program, remember?), the USS Wasp was in the Atlantic for war games. One night several of us enlisted were out by the smokes locker having a very illegal smoke. The topic of conversation? Would they ever put sails on the Constitution? We had exhausted favorite liberty locations, girls, and booze as topics. So, as most Navy men will do, we moved onto an irrelevant ( as in above our pay grade) matter.

In the tropics, the night sky can be incredibly dark, even while phosphorescent organisms’ glow lights the sea. So we were all taken by surprise when we first heard and then saw a match flare beyond our circle. Out of the dark came the glow of someone lighting up – not one of us. As the figure moved closer, someone saw the rank and squeaked out something akin to” Admiral on deck.” It was Admiral Outlaw, one of the senior officers in charge of the war games. He unfroze the crew with a simple ‘”relax.” We all stood looking quietly out to sea for a moment. Then he authoritatively scuttled our BS. “The Constitution is a junior command. How would you like to be the commander who took a national treasure out to sea and ran it aground? Your career would be destroyed. Naw. They’ll never put sails on her.” and with that, the Admiral turned and headed back to officers country.

So to sum this story up: keep your dollar in your pocket, and never say never.

The Transom Eagle

During the nineties, I frequently went into the old Boston Navy Yard to have lunch with my friend Bill Bromell. Bill was the model maker at the Constitution Museum and had an absolutely to die for shop above the Constitution’s maintenance shop. Going to visit was one way of ensuring that my friend, who was just a bit of an eccentric, got out for some fresh air.
One day, we were walking through the maintenance shop on our way to lunch and stopped to watch one of the carpenters working on the transom eagle seen in the picture I’ve attached. I was doing the traditional carver’s routine of looking at all the details of someone else’s work when I noticed the paint pot nearby and the sad look on the carpenter’s face. We did the usual thing and asked what was wrong. He explained that he had just finished carefully stripping the old bird and was about to prime it before it was re-installed. It was carved in 1910 of Ponderosa pine ( not wood we’d generally look to these days for carving, but old-growth? That might be a different story). This eagle was probably a replacement for something earlier. Carved wood on vessels does not last forever.
It turned out that he’d just finished stripping multiple layers of old paint. Wood on vessels needs paint or varnish to aid in preservation. But, the detail disappears. And, the detail on this eagle’s bare wood was incredible. The carver had been interested in creating an accurate portrayal of each feather. I felt a pang of sympathy for the carver who created such beauty, knowing that it would get covered in paint.

I remembered back to my own Navy days. And recalling the old rubric that “if it moves – salute it. If it doesn’t paint it,” I asked: How many coats did you take off it? 56, he said.
I thought about the average bosun and the average bosun’s frame of mind when confronted with keeping the deck division busy: ” Hey you! Johnson! Rig a bosun’s chair and paint the bloody eagle.”
I understood the sadness of both the carpenter and generations of seaman Johnsons.

Decline & Fall – Ships Carving

The gilt-edged age for the ship carver had to have been the 17th and 18th centuries. The figureheads were the least of it. There were gilded coats of arms, allegorical figures, swags, and elaborately carved moldings everywhere.
Set sail, wind up in a storm, get into a dust-up with the Dread Pirate Roberts or meet up with a French corsair, and when you came back into port, watch the carvers bill rachet skyward. Those cherubs on the starboard Quarter gallery? Somebody’s cannon blew away? They need replacing.
I doubt that carvers grew wealthy. But, there was steady work. Think of it as a handy 17th and 18th-century body shop for ships. “Here’s the estimate- we can try to save that Neptunas Rex on the transom, but it’s cheaper to replace.”
Sometime in the Napoleonic Wars, the British Admiralty began to budget the purse into which captains could dip for replacement swag. Just so much for a frigate, this for a fifth-rate, that for a third and so on. I’ve suspected that the Admiralty knew that some skippers and bosuns were in on a deal with with the carvers – ” I’ve got some cherubs this week buy them from me rather than Smithwick, and I’ll kickback 5%.” The fine art of naval chicanery in practice.
Thus began the inexorable decline and fall of the honorable trade of ships carver. Over on this side of the Atlantic, there were no royal purses to fund tons of gilded frippery. During the glory days of American sail, journalists would visit the docks and write a commentary on which newly arrived vessels were most tastefully attired. Many Maritime Museums display the fine figureheads that once graced the bows of the clippers.

Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum

Then along came the Quakers. They caused crews to mutiny by taking figureheads off vessels and replacing them with sober billet heads. Sail without our Jeremey Bentham figurehead? Never. Figureheads continued to have their day for a while. But, gradually, more modest accouterments became the rule. The cost was part of the reason; fancy carvings were expensive to maintain.
The following photos are from the U.S.S. Constitution Museum (for a detailed article on the Constitutions bow candy dip into this Article:

The first photo came off the Constitution, and the second came from H.M.S. Cyane. Both are good representations of early 19th naval billet heads, spare and none too fancy. But, great representations of the carver’s art.

Two -headed equestrian figurehead from a Royal Navy vessel ( Peabody Essex Museum)

Compared to the two-headed equestrian figurehead ( circa 1750, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum), the billet heads appear downright dowdy. The final billet heads are from the Penobscot Bay Maritime Museums collection. They have the distinction of being in mint condition Carved by either Thomas or W.L. Seavy of Bangor, Maine. They never were mounted on a ship and represent the end of billet heads for commercial shipping.

Here is a shot of more recent work on a contemporary sailboat.

Lastly, here is a ridiculous bit of plastic on an otherwise pretty boat.

sic transit gloria mundi

Thoughts On Carving – Designs within designs

Those of you familiar with the U.S.S Constitution may recognize the featured photo as one of the boarding planks on the Constitution.
It’s been a frequently carved design for me since I first saw it, and I’ve used it to grace chest and box tops over the years. Despite being an intricate design, it is not a hard carving project.
If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know that I plunder designs. I love to alter things, pull elements out of context, and place them in new settings. It’s a common technique for artisans and artists. The boarding plank design’s most salient feature, for me, was the head.

Boarding plank carving on the USS Constitution.

At some time in the ’90s, a client wanted something carved on the end of a tiller; the usual Turk’s Head knot was not what he wanted. I plundered the boarding plank for the design, and the client sailed away very pleased. Here is the prototype for the tiller head:

Later, I again used the head for some quickly carved walking stick heads. Never meant to be fully featured carvings the stick heads were “sketches” that I could carve and sell as I worked. They sold well at boat shows.

Usable design elements are in plain sight within other designs. Plunder away!