Captain Robert Douglas was brushing a last-minute coat of stain onto the mainmast of his topsail schooner Shenandoah as the spar lay on its side in the Tisbury Wharf Co. parking lot. Earlier in the year, rot had been discovered in both the main and the foremast, and Myles Thurlow, a master shipwright from West Tisbury, had done extensive repairwork on the main, and had built a new foremast from scratch. Soon, crane operator John Packer would lift the masts onto a barge and taxi them, one by one, out to the Shenandoah.
It was June 1, and the weather had been dodgy for the previous couple of weeks. The Shenandoah’s charter season was bearing down, so Capt. Douglas was feeling a sense of relief that his vessel would soon be back in service, but moving and stepping 66-foot spars is a pretty high-stakes game, and I couldn’t help wondering if he was feeling any jitters.
“Captain, are you a little nervous? I mean, what if Myles measured wrong?” I joked. Capt. Douglas looked at me quizzically, as if what I had just said was totally incomprehensible.
When people on the waterfront speak of Myles Thurlow, it’s with such reverence that one might expect him to have a flowing white beard. The fact is, Myles is in his early 30s, and could pass for even younger. He has decades of experience; it’s just that it’s been compressed into a relatively short period of time.
In the Nineties, Len Morris was director of Sant Bani, an alternative school where Mr. Thurlow was a student — he was around 5 or 6 at the time. “He just wanted to make things,” said Mr. Morris, “so we allowed him to pursue the interests he had; it’s called self-directed learning.”
Sant Bani would close, and Mr. Thurlow would move on to the Charter School, but his heart was outside the classroom. “I was interested in working with boats and working with wood,” he said. “So I started working after school and weekends at G and B [the Gannon and Benjamin boatyard] when I was about 12. Around 10th or 11th grade, I just started working more and going to school less, and then I was gone,” he chuckled. Mr.Thurlow would go on to get his GED, but he earned a master’s degree in hands-on boatbuilding and rigging down on the waterfront.
When Mr.Thurlow was still at the Charter School, he was among several students who took a boat design course offered by Nat Benjamin. “It was clear Myles had talent,” said Benjamin; “he was about 15, and had an uncanny boat sense, a sense of proportion — he understood construction.”
The class was charged with designing a boat for Vineyard Voyagers, an organization formed by Sidney Morris and master mariner Malcolm Boyd, patterned along the lines of Outward Bound.
Mr. Thurlow’s design was selected as the winner: a 28-foot ketch-rigged open boat reminiscent of a 19th century fishing craft called the Nomans Land boat. She would be christened Mabel.
Mr. Thurlow not only designed Mabel, he built her at the Five Corners Shipyard (where the Corner Five Surf Company is now located at Five Corners), and then sailed on her maiden voyage to Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Hudson Revival in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Not bad for a 15-year-old.
Mr. Thurlow’s 20s were spent sailing and learning his craft from the masters. He learned rigging and celestial navigation from Billy Mabie, a now retired chief mate with Exxon, who rigged both Shenandoah and her sister ship Alabama in his time off sea duty. Mr. Thurlow went on to teach rigging at the prestigious WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine. He sailed to India with Jim Lobdel, and up and down the East Coast on the Pride of Baltimore, a 90-foot Baltimore clipper. He helped restore Gary Maynard’s 1911 classic Violet, and rigged the 65-foot Gannon and Benjamin–built schooner Juno. Myles Thurlow was making a name for himself.
“Myles is the poster child for self-directed learning,” said Sidney Morris. “He went from dropping out of school to being the prince of the waterfront.”
These days Mr. Thurlow is up to his scuppers in work. In addition to doing custom rigging packages and boat restoration, he does a lot of work for the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust through John C. Anderson Painters and Restorers — everything from restoring the parapet of the Whaling Church in Edgartown to fixing the band organ at the Flying Horses. He and his friend Max Decker built a harmonograph, a device that uses swinging pendulums to draw pictures, that was exhibited at the West Tisbury library.
“He does just about everything,” said John Anderson, “and if he hits a wall he figures [a solution] out faster than anyone I know.”
But regardless of how busy you are, when Capt. Douglas calls, you find the time.
“About every eight to 10 years on the Shenandoah, they take everything apart and start poking around to see what they can find,” said Mr. Thurlow. “The crew pulled the rig out last fall, and found some rot on the masts, especially the foremast; they just didn’t know to what extent.”
Mr. Thurlow explained that it’s incredibly hard to inspect for rot. You dig around, but don’t want to dig too much, because that will eventually allow water to seep in, which will lead to even more rot.
“That foremast had been repaired before,” he explained. “You start digging around and find a couple of spots, and then at one point you just say … ahh, maybe it’s time to replace.”
The Shenandoah was built in 1964, and still had her original masts, both shaped from Douglas firs. But to replace the foremast with a Douglas fir posed a couple of problems.
“If we had known more in advance, we could have gotten a new tree,” said Mr. Thurlow, “but they [Shenandoah] had a season coming up, and we just didn’t have time.” But even if they had found one, the going price for a Douglas fir that size is around $40,000. And then you had to get it here from the West Coast and turn it into a mast. That would be stretching the budget.
Capt. Douglas chuckled and said, “I have friends who smoke, and cigarettes are more than ten bucks a pack — and I kid them about them having an expensive hobby!”
So it was time for Plan B. Rather than go with a single piece Douglas fir mast, they would go with a “glulam,” or glued laminate mast, which is essentially a spar composed from layers of lumber bonded together with adhesive. It went against the purist in Mr. Thurlow, but he had to admit there was a lot to recommend a glulam. “A lot of boats are starting to use these,” he said; “they’re lighter because they’re hollow inside, they’re stiffer and water can’t get in, so they won’t check, and that’s where problems start.” Plus they cost about half what a Douglas fir costs.
The Douglases bought the glulam mast from a Canadian company, or to be more precise, they bought a 2-foot by 2-foot by 68-foot laminated blank that had to be made into a mast, and the first step was to make it round. Mr. Thurlow explained that to do this by hand is a lot of work. You start by cutting the corners off the square, making it into an octagonal, and then keep cutting until it’s round. Or you could use a lathe. But where do you find a lathe big enough to use on a mast that’s nearly 70 feet long?
During World War II, a 90-foot lathe was built in Baltimore, Md., to help with the construction of the Liberty ships, and it now resides in Mystic, Conn., so that’s where the mast was trucked. Mr. Thurlow and a couple of friends went there to oversee the process. Not only did the mast have to be made round, it had to be tapered — from about 20 inches in diameter at the deck to 16 inches at the masthead. The masthead itself, which has to support the topmast, is square. The process took about a week, and went smoothly; in fact, according to Mr. Thurlow, the hardest thing was getting all the chips out of the way. Once completed, it was trucked up to the Tisbury Wharf parking lot, where Mr. Thurlow and Ted Okie would spend a few more days shaping the masthead with a chainsaw and a power plane, and that was it — the Shenandoah had a new mast.
The day they began barging the masts out to the Shenandoah, I couldn’t help thinking about the scale of this whole project — everything from the 90-foot lathe to the the towering crane on the barge lifting 2½-ton timbers — everything was enormous. And then I heard a familiar voice call my name; it was Billy Mabie, who had stopped by to watch the operation.
Earlier in the day, Capt. Douglas took me aside to point out a particularly intricate piece of rigging. “See that?” he said. “That’s art!” He was pointing to a wire-wrapped fitting that Mr. Mabie had done on the Shenandoah masthead years ago.
So while I was trying to wrap my head around the sheer magnitude of this job, Mr. Mabie was directing me to take a closer look at the artistry.
“Look at this,” he said pointing to a scarf joint Mr. Thurlow had created to patch a part of the mainmast where rot had been removed. “Do you realize how hard it is to match the angles on a curved surface like that? And look at this,” he said pointing to the way the drill holes aligned perfectly on the part of the mast called the cheeks. “How does someone today learn how to do stuff like this? There’s no app for it — he’s a real treasure.”
Capt. Douglas put it even more succinctly: “We’re lucky Myles hangs his hat here.”