Tom Hale : A model life
"I've worked with my hands all my life to a greater or lesser extent," reflects 83-year-old Tom Hale. "My great interest in maritime affairs, combined with a slight ability to use tools" - he adds modestly - "was a logical forerunner for model building."
With calm reserve and an easy, cordial manner, he explains the glass cases in his home that display a few of the meticulously replicated historic model ships Mr. Hale has been building for more than 30 years. Several of his ship models have been exhibited in Woods Hole, and at the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, Washington.
After growing up in Newburyport, where his father was in the shipping business, Mr. Hale graduated in architecture from Harvard University. He first visited the Vineyard in 1948. In 1961, driven by his passion for the sea and for boatbuilding, he purchased the Martha's Vineyard Shipyard from Bob Love, and rebuilt it to accommodate recreational boaters. During his 25 years at the helm, the shipyard, incorporated in 1856 (the third-oldest uninterrupted business on the Vineyard), built about 150 boats, along with providing regular shipyard maintenance services. Included among the boats were 53 Vineyard Vixens, Mr. Hale's own design with participation of his son Tom, of a popular double-ended fiberglass cruising sailboat. After selling the business to son Phillip Hale in 1986, he turned his attentions elsewhere.
In addition to sitting on the boards of a number of organizations devoted to maritime history (the National Maritime Historical Association, Nautical Research Guild, National Association of Boat builders and Repairers, and Martha's Vineyard Museum, which published his book, The Ghost of the Grasshopper, the Seagirt Saga of Two Families), he helped found Sail Martha's Vineyard.
"There was nothing like it before," he says, praising the organization for "fostering the maritime aura and era of the Vineyard," and noting that his son Phillip is now more actively involved in it than he. "It's a remarkable organization. Sail Martha's Vineyard is getting people interested in much more than just sailing." Mr. Hale, with his 31-foot, gaff-rigged Concordia sloop, Windseye, moored in Vineyard Haven harbor, Mr. Hale says with a smile. "Model making has become sort of the focus of my life."
Photos by Fae Kontje-Gibbs
The Tisbury home he shares with his wife Margie is filled with the glass cases that display his models. He knows the histories, stories, and lore of every one.
Among others in the dining room is Mr. Hale's first model, built when he was a youngster, of his 15 1/2-foot sloop, Hard-a-lee, named after a book authored by his granduncle, who was a Navy surgeon in the Civil War. He still owns the sloop, stored in his shed, and he says, "She's ready to go."
Gesturing to another, larger model, Mr. Hale says, "This is my pride and joy. This is the Great Britain," adding, "It's an interesting story." He smiles. "And you're going to have to have a lecture now."
Explaining that the 320-foot passenger vessel Great Britain was one of the first steam and sail driven ships to cross the Atlantic, in the 1840s, Mr. Hale speaks easily and knowledgeably about the iron-hulled vessel that went aground on Nantucket Shoals and limped into Holmes Hole in 1856 and anchored between the Chops.
There are carefully typed histories accompanying most of the precisely constructed models, making the already intriguing vessels even more interesting.
"You see something about this model?" he asks, pointing again to the Great Britain and explaining that it is a half model, with its mirrored back wall of the case reflecting the intricate details of the ship's deck, hull, and rigging. The reflection makes the model look whole.
In the living room is a model of the 1880s ship, SS Servia. "There was no particular reason for me to build that except that I thought she was a particularly handsome ship," he says, adding that she had been a passenger vessel of the Cunard Line. Unlike the durable iron hull of the Great Britain, which Mr. Hale and his wife were able to tour in her restored state in Bristol, England, several years ago, the steel-hulled Servia is no longer afloat.
HMS Warrior, displayed in the kitchen, is built to look as though she were in dry dock. Mr. Hale says, "She was probably the most powerful vessel in the world at the time she was built in 1860."
There is something to tell, something to be learned with every turn of the head. Sounding enthused, Mr. Hales says, "Now come see one under construction." The home-based workshop - which he declares his favorite room in the house - is full of tiny boxes, tools new and old, sheaves of boat plans, work benches bearing the scars of happy labor, and a miniature version of Charles Darwin's boat, HMS Beagle.
"I've got a long way to go because the rigging is totally incomplete," he says, explaining that he does tie his own ratlines, but not the bow nets. "I know my limits," he says, chuckling. The Beagle's keel is plated with bright copper, a forerunner to today's bottom paint. "I think she'll be a handsome model."
Fae Kontje-Gibbs is an artist, teacher, and freelance writer.