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Come sail away

Brad Jolly • May 29, 2012 at 9:08 AM

Intricate model sailing ships adorn most of the rooms in John and Becky Lewis’ small house in Piney Flats.

The HMS Victory, about 3 feet long, sits atop a piano in the living room. Thread-sized rigging descends from the masts.

In a bedroom, the Cutty Sark is docked against a wall. “It was one of the last clipper ships,” John said. “It was very long and narrow and fast.”

In his workroom John’s masterwork, the Essex, is displayed in a case. Several tiny crewmen stand on the deck.

Some of the ships were built from kits, John said, but not the Essex. He built it from scratch, milling the wooden parts.

“There are hundreds of people who can do a kit,” he said, but it doesn’t look like a simple feat.

John said it takes him about a year to complete a kit, with a good bit of that going to work on the rigging.

John, who will be 88 in June, is from New York. He can’t precisely pinpoint when his passion for model shipbuilding began but said when he was a child he built “a few crude ones.” While in college he went in with friends to buy a sailboat and did some lake sailing. He became a chemical engineer and traveled extensively, sometimes by ship.

He retired in 1992, at the age of 68, and moved to Tennessee. Here he met Becky Milhorn, then a widow, at a senior citizens dance, and they were married 17 years ago.

John spends five to six hours a day working on the ships. “I leave him alone,” Becky said of those long stretches. “He is a patient man.”

Even working many hours a day, it took him about seven years to complete the Essex. “The hull took several years,” he said. “The rigging took only one year.”

“This ship is made like a real ship,” John said, showing a photograph of the model’s bowed ribs, which he said differ from the real ship’s ribs by being more widely spaced. He cut and sawed the ship’s pieces and assembled them using several types of glue.

The original Essex was built in 1799 and was ultimately captured by the British in 1814. The model, Henry has written on an information sheet displayed in the case, was started in 1997 and finished in 2003. It is on a scale of 1 to 48; that is, each 1⁄4 inch of the model equals 1 foot of the original ship. The model ship is 5 feet long.

Woods used in the model were oak, ash, beech, poplar, cherry and mahogany. The miniature contents include cabin furniture, cannons and canon balls, lanterns, shotgun pellets, small boats, rope, ironwork, blocks and anchors. Atop, the masts support several types of rigging, ordered from a model supplier.

The back of the hull is open, allowing one to view the system of decks. One area contains tiny chairs and a table. Another contains the captain’s commode.

“The internal construction is very rarely reproduced in models of ships,” John notes, but he has done so.

He’s aware that his Essex is a showpiece and perhaps deserves a setting other than the corner of his workroom, and he would be willing to sell it.

On his work bench is another splendid ship, a model of a colorful yacht, the Royal Caroline, used by the British king, but his work on it has stopped. He has knee problems and now uses a walker to get from room to room. He used to stand at the workbench.

“I’ll probably never finish it,” he said of the royal yacht.

One hopes he’s wrong.

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