Hayden Building Movers and a Packer tug launched the scow Seeker on July 14 — a milestone event for shipbuilder Ted Box and his team, after seven years of boatbuilding at two different Beach Road sites.
Box laid the keel of the Seeker on Ernie Boch Jr.’s lot near Five Corners in 2011. He went on to weather a cancer scare, a Herculean site transfer, friction with Tisbury’s building inspector, and a longer-than-expected construction period.
With a backhoe and an excavator pushing the scow’s lift cradle, and the tug Thuban pulling the cradle with a cable, the handcrafted vessel slid off the beach at the edge of the R.M. Packer Terminal and into the harbor at about noon Saturday.
“It was stubborn getting off the beach,” tugboat captain Randy Jardin said.
Box said Ralph Packer, who watched from shore, asked why there wasn’t a line between the Scow and the tug. The absence of such a line meant the scow would be unrestrained once afloat — a detail Box admits was missed despite careful planning.
“The prop wash from the tugboat created … an aberrant current that ran along the shore,” he said.
The current propelled the scow “at about four or five knots” toward a steel bulkhead that had supported the recently demolished fish house at the Packer terminal, he said.
“[W]e were headed dead toward it, and I’m standing on the bow watching … we’re going to hit this,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s going to stop us from hitting it.”
That’s when volunteer Knolls Ward rushed in.
“To put it lightly, he’s strong. He jumped up and ran through a debris field with spikes and, you know, all kinds of dangerous debris, barefooted. Got there at the right second. He managed to get his hands on the boat.”
Between Ward, another volunteer named Wes Garner, and the tug, which managed to secure a small line to the scow, they were able to veer the scow from the bulkhead. Box said the port bow came within a foot of an allision that could have caused significant damage.
“It wouldn’t sink the boat, but it would have been a depressing moment in the launch,” he said.
Then the scow began to flood.
“I did not have everything in place. I didn’t have the pumps,” he said. He clarified that he’d installed two cast-iron hand pumps, but the “motley assortment” of motorized pumps aboard weren’t sufficient to stem the inflow of water. This was due in part to some pumps not having hoses.
Box sought to explain why there was water flooding the vessel.
“There’s over a thousand foot of cypress planks, and that means there’s a thousand foot of seams,” Box said. “And those seams — if each one of them weeps a little bit, you’ve got a lot of water coming in the boat. And it turned out amongst my volunteer caulkers, there were a few who didn’t get the concept of butt blocks, which are the vertical seams between two planks. And so we discovered four of them at least that didn’t get any caulking, so the water was coming in like a sieve.”
By the time the tug took Seeker on the hip to the West Dock at Tisbury Wharf, the scow had taken on a high volume of water.
“Boy, he took on a lot of water,” Jardin said. “He had two or three feet of water in there.”
“We were going down,” Box said.
Ralph Packer stepped in with hoses for the pumps that needed them, Box said, which supplied enough pumping power to save the scow. However, water continued to seep into the scow. Using buckets on poles, Box and his team delivered sawdust under the hull, where water pressure sucked it into the butt blocks, where it swelled into patches, he said.
Diver Jeff Smith, who also custom-engineered and fashioned bronze and other metal elements of the scow, planned to affix copper patches over the temporary sawdust patches sometime on Monday.
The other seams of the scow closed up on their own. Having never worked with cypress before, Box said he was surprised how swiftly the wood swelled and sealed the plank seams. He expected two days, but it sealed in two hours, he said.
Box said the shipbuilding process proved rewarding, even cathartic, for many of the volunteers on the project. Witnessing the inspiration and invigoration instilled in these volunteers, many of whom, he noted, were over 70, put wind in his own sails.
Box said his drive for the project was fairly solid until Friday the 13th, with the launch a day off: “I think partially because for the past seven years I’ve been tending to riveting my will to the dream of building this boat, and it took everything I had to do that. And all of a sudden we’re going into another stage. It’s the boat plus the sea. I’ve never lost a boat under my watch, but this is a bigger boat than I’ve ever dealt with. And I’m 73 years old. And you always have to ask yourself — am I who I think I am? Or am I who I tell myself I am? Or am I who I lie to myself convincingly, well enough to get it done, anyway? And so getting the boat in the water opens up a whole new chapter, and it requires owning, penetrating, and resolving your relationship with the boat.”
Any feeling of uncertainty ebbed away on launch day, he said.
Amid the near allision and the threat of sinking, Box arrived at a placid mindset and collected his resolve. “I felt calm. I felt, I can do this,” he said.
The masts are in Vineyard Haven, poised for tapering, he said. Then come rigging, sails, and engines. By next summer he expects these components to be integrated, and the scow ready to begin a life as a nonprofit teaching vessel.
Going forward, Seeker will rest at a mooring in the harbor, where work will continue, Box said.
He expressed deep thanks for all the helping hands that have assisted him in realizing his oak and cypress vision, describing it as of the community and for the community.
Reflecting along those lines, Jardin said, “It was nice to be part of a community project.”