Navy vet finds therapy in the details of ship-building
Will Matheson was 5 years old when his aunt, a World War II Army nurse, gave him two small wooden boats made by South Pacific islanders.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Matheson said. “I think that’s where I got my inspiration to build model ships when I got older. So far, I have eight completed and one in progress.”
Matheson, 79, is currently working on a replica of the Cutty Sark, a tea clipper, in his Dickinson workshop. The Cutty Sark project is three years in the making, but he’s taking his time because he wants it to be the best model ship he has ever built, he said.
After serving 10 years in the Navy as an officer, Matheson worked as an industrial engineer and moved around a lot. He retired four years ago, moving to Texas, the 13th state he has lived in and definitely the last, he said.
Aside from building model ships, he also built a 34-foot trimaran sailboat he and his wife, Donna, cruised on for many years. So, he knows a thing or two about his craft.
His collection — a whaling ship, pilot boat, Viking ship, Chinese junk, Mississippi riverboat, Boston clipper, battleship, Maine peapod and the Cutty Sark — is housed in his workshop among other memorabilia that represents his life.
The tools Matheson uses to build his model ships are innovative and impressive.
“In order to do the rigging, I cut the ends off of sewing needles and stick them into a dowel, so they’re like little forks,” he said. “That way, I can push and pull the thread through with a crochet hook.”
Although the Cutty Sark pieces came in a kit, Matheson made the wooden base himself, with tiny pieces of wood strips. He makes it a point to improvise as much as possible, he said.
The biggest ship he has built thus far is a replica of the Charles W. Morgan, a wooden whale ship docked in Mystic Seaport, Conn. It was built in 1841 and is the last remaining one in existence.
“I carved the hull from a block of sugar pine and it’s all handmade — nothing came from a kit,” he said. “I worked on it for several years before it was completed.”
The pilot boat and Maine peapod — a traditional small craft found on the coast of Maine today — were less time-consuming to build, he said.
“The pilot boat is actually a replica of the New York pilot boat, Phantom, built in 1868,” Matheson said.
The peapod originated along the East Coast in the late 1800s, and was ideal for lobstering because it was easily maneuvered around rocks and other obstacles.
The Chinese junk, typical of cargo boats used by pirates, took about six months to complete because of all the individual strips that had to be bent.
The Flying Fish, an extreme clipper built in East Boston in 1851, also took Matheson about six months to complete.
The real Flying Fish weighed 1,505 tons and sailed from New York to San Francisco in 92 days, just three days short of the record set by her sister ship, Flying Cloud, he said.
The paddlewheeler King of the Mississippi, took a little longer — seven months because of its many tiny pieces.
His most tedious model was the Viking ship, which required Matheson to learn how to steam bend the long hull planks.
“It’s patterned after the Oseberg, built in the latter half of the ninth century,” he said. “It was discovered and excavated in Oseberg, Norway in 1903.”
The battleship USS Missouri replica is special to Matheson, because he was a shipmate on the actual ship in Pearl Harbor.
A photo of him working on the ship hangs on a wall, as does a plank made from the ship’s deck engraved with a sketch of the ship and a tribute inscription to Matheson.
On the same wall, a collection of framed photos are reminders of family members who served in the military, including Matheson’s great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War, others who served during World War I and II, and his wife, Donna, an Army veteran.
Building model ships might be time-consuming and detailed, but Matheson considers it his therapy, he said.
“My mind is totally focused on running that line or tying that knot,” he said. “I go into a different area of my brain.”
Matheson’s tours of the actual Cutty Sark and Charles W. Morgan ships, plus his experience as a sailor, has been beneficial, he said.
“The Cutty Sark won’t be my last ship,” he said. “I’ll continue to build more, but I’m taking my time with this one. Hopefully, it will be the one that my kids and their kids will want to display.”