It was a sunny spring morning on the Vineyard Haven waterfront, and Phil Hale was preparing to launch a boat. As proprietor of the Martha's Vineyard Shipyard, he oversees the launching of hundreds of boats each year. But this one was a little different.
"Deborah," named after Phil's wife, is a magnificent schooner. Every line is in place, sails are clean and crisp, rails are varnished to perfection, and the hull sports a shiny new coat of bottom paint.
With the tide turning favorably off of West Chop, and the forecast of light winds and flat seas holding true, it was time to launch.
So Mr. Hale got his hip boots on, and with the help of a specially built cradle, picked up the boat and wheeled it down the ramp. When it floated free of the cradle, he gave it a firm push at the stern, and sent the schooner out toward the open water. He scrambled back up the ramp, not overly concerned about the vessel headed for the ferry channel. Then he grabbed his radio control, and with the touch of a button, he sheeted in Deborah's sails. The elegant model sailboat responded to the breeze, heeled to starboard, and moved smartly toward the outer harbor. Nearly six nautical miles of Vineyard Sound lay between Deborah and her destination, Little Harbor in Woods Hole.
"Have I lost my mind, Dad?" Mr. Hale had asked a few moments earlier, as Tom Hale, his father and fellow model boat enthusiast, arrived for the launch.
"Did you ever have one?" the elder Hale asked with a smile.
"I don't miss it much," said Phil Hale in reply. Though the Hale family may question its collective sanity, no one could doubt its dedication to the meticulous building of model boats. Tom Hale, though no longer involved in day-to-day operations of the shipyard, still spends many hours constructing models. He is finishing a scale model of the H.M.S. Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his voyage toward the theory of evolution. Both father and son will have models on display this weekend, April 18 and 19, at the Woods Hole Historical Museum's Model Boat Festival. Tom Hale will carry his over on a ferry. But his son decided to sail his model to the show, the act that prompted the question of sanity. As many would attest, it is no simple feat even in a full size boat.
A small bon voyage party saw Deborah off from the shipyard's dock. Phil Hale followed closely in a small skiff tacking the model through the light breeze. Radio control buttons control the rudder to steer the boat, as well as the sheets, those lines that shape and position the sails. That she sails so well is no surprise. She is built on the design of Juno, the 85-foot (from the end of her bowsprit to the end of her boomkin) schooner designed by Nat Benjamin and built by Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway. Deborah, 85 inches long, an inch to a foot in scale, required some modifications of Juno's dimensions.
The first part of the voyage was challenging because the winds were very light. Deborah lay becalmed for about 20 minutes off West Chop. "Then that little front came through," said Mr. Hale later. As the day wore on, the skies darkened and the wind picked up, gusting at times near 15 knots. The seas stayed relatively calm, approaching a one foot chop. Steering required the same sort of concentration and deft touch it would take in a larger boat, carefully nursing the boat through each wave and trough.
"I was steering so much, I had to go up and down off the waves," said Mr. Hale. "The conditions were probably beyond what I should have been sailing in. If you go to scale, they were pretty big waves."
About three hours later, a welcoming party from the Woods Hole Historical Museum spotted Mr. Hale guiding Deborah along the beach, tucked into the sheltered waters behind Nobska Point. After some quick repairs at sea, Mr. Hale headed toward choppier water just off the rocky point, and steered the model through a shimmering sea toward Little Harbor. Just after turning into the harbor, near the Coast Guard base, well past the point of a successful voyage, the model's waterlogged electronics finally gave out, and her master hauled Deborah aboard his skiff for the final 50 yards of the voyage. Her topsail was long since stowed in Phil Hale's pocket, a concession to the building breeze. Her bilge was sloshing with seawater, later pumped out with a not-so-high-tech turkey baster.
There were cheers all around, champagne toasts, and a family reunion of sorts as Tom Hale, who took the ferry over earlier, met Phil Hale at the dock in Little Harbor. Phil's son James also arrived, by boat, with the cradle and other supplies.
There will be about 150 model boats at the festival this weekend. Many will draw the admiration of visitors. Some will sail and race by remote control. A very few may match the scrupulous detail of Deborah's design and workmanship. But none will equal her arrival through miles of open water, navigating the swift currents and fluky winds of Vineyard Sound. On that score, she sails beyond the rest.