Everything is massive on an old wood ship. That became obvious, last August, when we stepped aboard the Maryland Dove for the first time.
Construction on Historic St. Mary’s City’s latest floating ambassador began at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 2018; but, because of the pandemic, it was only completed this summer. And yet, even though she’s essentially brand new, the ship might as well be a 17th Century English pinnace.
That’s because the Maryland Dove is a fairly accurate replica of one of the ships that landed the first English settlers here nearly 400 years ago. The Ark and Dove dropped anchor in the Potomac River, just off of St. Clement Island, in February 1634. After scouting the area for a couple weeks, the new colonists — roughly 140 Catholics escaping persecution in Protestant England — settled a few miles south on the banks of the peaceful St. Mary’s River.
The 132-foot, 400-ton Ark, which had been hired to carry most of the settlers and the lion’s share of the supplies over from England, left for her return trip by early summer. The Dove, much smaller at just 76 feet and 40 tons, was meant to be left behind for use by the colonists. However, the pinnace was lost at sea just a year later while carrying a load of timber and beaver pelts back to England.
In 1978, the State of Maryland launched the first Maryland Dove replica ship to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Ark and the Dove. After more than 40 years wear and tear, though, the well-used ship was showing her age. Modern scholarship had also determined that she deviated in some key ways from a true 17th Century pinnace. For example, she was fitted as a three-masted ship carrying an assortment of square sails, which call for a larger crew than a vessel of this size would have had.
The new Maryland Dove was built to replace its leaky predecessor, and also to correct some inaccuracies in its construction. The latest replica now carries the “bogert” rig popular in Europe in the 1600s. That includes replacing many of those hard-to-manage square sails with much handier lateen and sprit sails.
In addition, a few modern amenities were added to accommodate modern safety regulations. One key factor: Historic St. Mary’s City wanted the ship to be able to carry paying passengers, which wasn’t permitted on its predecessor.
In late August, the new Maryland Dove finally tied up to the wharf in Historic St. Mary’s City.
To celebrate the commissioning, the living museum opened the ship to the public for a day. For good measure, visitors could also eye the old Maryland Dove and the Edna E. Lockwood, CBMM’s venerable bugeye schooner, both of which were tied up across the dock.
But the real excitement came with stepping aboard HSMC’s new floating ambassador. Standing in the bows, you finally get a sense of just how massive the construction of a traditional timber ship must be. Down below, of course, you can see Maryland Dove’s ribs, 10 inches thick in places. But it’s the spine of the vessel that takes your breath.
That’s most obvious at the stem, the tree-sized timber that arcs up from the keel to form the bow of the ship. And yet, despite its size, it’s as elegantly shaped as the stem of any yacht. While a volunteer stood at the foot of the bowsprit and told us the ship’s story, all Dawn and I could think about was the thousands and thousands of man-hours that went into rabbeting, tapering and scarfing this giant piece of lumber.
All of that has to be so precise that the stem joins the keel so seamlessly that they act as one piece of wood. At the same time, the forward end of every plank must butt up into its rabbet without a gap.
The only thing more remarkable is that a beast of this size — 40 tons of wood and ballast — is still subject to the miracle of sail. And because the Maryland Dove was built to take passengers, that miracle will be soon be accessible to the public.
Dawn and I are certainly ready to help hoist those sails.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.