Seeker builder weathers turbulent seas

Ted Box is back to work on the iconic wooden boat after being waylaid by cancer.

Ted Box on the nearly completed deck of the Seeker. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Ted Box has been working on the Seeker, the 90-foot wooden scow that sits on a sliver of Vineyard Haven Harbor beach between the seawall and the fuel tanks at R.M. Packer, since the spring of 2011. During that time, Mr. Box, 70, has been a fixture on the scow-in-progress, working in all kinds of weather, often on his own. He’s had to overcome financial constraints, labor shortages, and permitting difficulties. His 32-ton passion project has also had to be moved twice — no small logistical feat on Beach Road, a narrow, heavily traveled road that’s garlanded by low-slung powerlines.

This spring, Mr. Box encountered his biggest challenge yet when he underwent painful treatments for an aggressive form of cancer.

“It started in my tongue, then it spread to the left side of my neck. It swelled up so big it looked like a second head,” he said. “The doctors told me it was one of the more curable cancers, but they also told me it was one of the most painful to treat.”

When he was diagnosed 18 months prior, Mr. Box tried alternative treatment in lieu of radiation. “It didn’t work,” he said. “Alternative medicine was going to put me in my grave.”

This spring, Mr. Box decided to go the conventional route. He had radiation treatments five days a week for two months.

“It’s hard to describe just how bad the pain is,” he said. “Just a sip of water sets your mouth on fire. My weight dropped to 116 pounds. I didn’t even look at myself in a mirror.”

Mr. Box has always been a busy man. In addition to being a master boatbuilder, he’s a renowned artist, sought-after master carpenter, and occasional ballroom dance instructor. He said that his battle with cancer made him slow down and take stock.

“During chemo, I got introspective,” he said. “For 30 years I’ve been working with youth. Many of them were the throwaways that slipped through the cracks. I don’t lecture them. I accept how they are. They decide their pace of change. I know at least 20 of them were headed to jail, or worse, and now they’re doing well. We’ve had young people from both ends of the spectrum work on the Seeker. We have to keep it going.”

Today, Mr. Box is cancer-free, and he’s back to full-time carpentry. “I’m working in the rafters again,” he said with a grin. “I love working up high. It kind of distinguishes the men from the boys.”

Although the alternative medicine he initially tried didn’t slow down his cancer, Mr. Box said it speeded up his recovery after radiation and chemotherapy. On the recommendation of friend Dick Iacovello, he used balms and mouth rinses derived from comfrey, a plant that has been used for medicinal purposes since Roman times.

“It helped me to not distress as much during the treatment, and it helped heal after,” he said. “My doctors were absolutely amazed how fast the scar healed. It was 90 percent gone after 20 days.”

Mr. Box said a comfrey-based mouth rinse also quelled the scorching pain in his mouth. “I was able to eat solid food and stop my pain meds three weeks after radiation stopped,” he said. “Most people can’t do that after two or three months.”

Now that he’s working again, Mr. Box will funnel what he can of his own money into finishing the Seeker, and he’s taking on fundraising with renewed vigor. “This doesn’t fit into typical grant material,” he said. “I’ve thought a lot about how to get the funds to finish it. I’m hoping for some big donors to step up. Even small donations go a long way when you don’t have to pay for labor.” The next big-ticket item is power — a sail and a diesel engine. “I know someone on-Island who’s got contacts with sail and diesel companies,” he said. “I’m going to work every angle I can.”

Mr. Box said the exterior work on the Seeker is nearly complete. “The hull and the deck are done, and the caulking is done. It could go in the water right now.”
Mr. Box plans on using his carpentry and his artistry to finish the belowdecks this winter. “Ralph [Packer] said I could stay here as long as I want. He’s been unbelievably generous.”

If all goes well, the Seeker will launch next summer. Mr. Box said he hopes to use it as a floating classroom to teach young people about the sea, about boats, about the arts, and about history. “I’d like to retrace old routes that these boats took,” he said. “There was a route that brought freed slaves from North Carolina to Martha’s Vineyard. I’d love to reenact that.”