Editor’s Note: The replica ship Half Moon was completed in Albany in 1989 and served as a cultural ambassador celebrating the role of the Dutch in naval architecture, exploration, international trade, and colonization. An earlier replica was built in Amsterdam and presented to the United States during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in 1909. This first replica was not maintained after the celebration and did not survive long as a static exhibit at Bear Mountain and later at Cohoes. The 1989 replica performed well once her characteristics were understood and was exhibited in a number of ports along the Atlantic seaboard. Later, she served as valuable and successful educational platform on the Hudson River through her “Voyages of Discovery” program for school children. The ship is currently in the Netherlands after spending several years as an exhibit in Hoorn.
To read more about the technology and terminology of sailing in the seventeenth century and later, John Harland’s Seamanship in the Age of Sail, 1984 (republished by the Naval Institute Press in 1987) is recommended. For an account of Henry Hudson’s four voyages of exploration, including his trip up the Hudson River in 1609, Donald Johnson’s Charting the Sea of Darkness, International Marine, 1993 is recommended. This latter book is dedicated to the shipwright who designed and built the replica, Nick Benton.
Follow Muddy Paddle, Able Seaman aboard the replica ship Half Moon here.
Building the ship
I was pretty skeptical when I first heard about it. Someone was planning to build a replica of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon, the ship Hudson sailed up the river now bearing his name in 1609. It seemed even more unlikely that construction would take place in Albany, a city with little in the way of docks or living maritime traditions. I realized the project was real when I drove past a downtown Albany parking lot along the river and was startled to see the outline of a wooden ship with a keel, a stem and a sternpost resting on thick timbers and braced in position. It was the summer of 1988.
The original Half Moon was one of two “jagten” (yachts, meaning hunters or chasers) ordered by the VOC or Verenigde Oostindische Compagne (Dutch East India Company) in July, 1608. The Half Moon was to be 70 old Amsterdam feet long “binnen steven” (between stem and sternpost) 16 feet in beam and 8 feet depth of hold and she was to have a cabin fitted behind the mizzen mast. She carried a standard six-sail rig of the period and was built at the East India Company’s Scheeps-Timmer-Werf in Amsterdam in 1608-1609. Englishman Henry Hudson was employed by the VOC to search for a passage to the Far East in 1609 and set sail for the company aboard the new ship on March 25, 1609. Disregarding instructions, Hudson and his mixed Dutch and English crew explored much of the American east coast before sailing up the river that later bore his name in September. After the ship was returned to the Netherlands, she appears to have come to an accidental or deliberate end no later than 1618.
The replica ship’s nascent frame was soon enclosed by a steel shed as the work of erecting frames (the ships wooden ribs) continued during the colder weather and into the winter. A job change took me to a downtown Albany building near this site, and I became involved as a volunteer, checking in at lunchtime, occasionally offering a little time at the end of the workday and helping on weekends.
The Half Moon (Halve Maen in Dutch), replica was conceived of by Andrew Hendricks, a doctor from North Carolina with Dutch ancestry. Donations were solicited and volunteers welcomed. The ship was designed by Nick Benton, a young shipwright from Rhode Island. Benton travelled to Amsterdam and learned that the 1608 Halve Maen was quite different from the replica built in the Netherlands in 1909 for the Hudson Fulton Celebration. Subsequent research had uncovered the Dutch East India Company’s 1608 construction resolution which detailed critical dimensions and details. It was also theorized that hulls of this period were designed according to the Tangent Arc system instead of taking lines off of a model or drawings. As Benton described the system, frames were lofted directly using a system of mathematical proportions, straight edges and compasses. The resulting hull shape featured a very flat bottom, abrupt chines (the places where the hull changes from bottom to sides) and pronounced tumblehome (the sides are wider at the waterline than at the deck and “tumble” inward). The bow of the ship was very rotund while the stern was narrow and rose high above the intended waterline. We later learned that its high profile worked like the tail of a weathervane in maintaining the ship’s course while reaching and tacking, that is, sailing across the wind or slightly into the wind at an angle.
In addition to Benton, the Albany work force consisted of Nicholas Miller who served as the foreman and an enthusiastic group of volunteers, many of whom brought useful skills and experiences to the team. After a temporary steel shed was built over the keel and the first positioned frames, several volunteers served as docents, explaining the project to visitors and encouraging participation. The project was promoted in the local press and advertised with car cards on city busses. There was an aggressive schedule to launch and sail the ship in the summer of 1989. This necessitated a non-traditional approach to the ship’s construction. Unlike the traditionally framed original ship or the 1909 replica, the structural members of the hull were all pre-fabricated and shaped offsite using glue laminated oak. Likewise, the decorative flourishes, cannon, rigging and sails were all being produced elsewhere by specialty contractors while the hull was under construction. Each frame was a composite, bolted together from multiple futtocks (sections of the ribs), braced at the top for rigidity and tilted into position. The frames were temporarily held in position by ribbands, scrap strips of wood, until the inner and outer coverings gradually replaced them. One pair of frames in the stern was misshapen, and they could not be shaped true. The tight schedule dictated using them anyway. The bulges remained but were not noticeable because they were below the waterline.
The ship’s structural frame was completed in February of 1989 and was almost 30 feet in height. The interior of the hull was graceful, symmetrical, and might have been likened to the inverted rib cage of a huge whale. Ceiling planking (sheathing of the interior) and deck clamps (curving planks that would carry the deck beams) were installed next, followed by the exterior planking. This was also done in a non-traditional way by nailing and gluing one-inch strip planks to the frames. These were followed by two layers of plywood laid in diagonal strips and then covered by an outer shell of Kevlar up to the waterline. Scaffolding was raised as the sides grew in height. Laminated deck beams were installed and the decks were built as epoxy sandwiches of thin planks and plywood. Some volunteers quipped that the ship should be renamed the Half Glue.
The volunteers quickly learned that few cuts were guided by straight lines. Everything was curved, cambered, beveled and often bent, requiring the use of templates and some degree of estimation. Once the main deck was completed, the large band saw was winched up and installed on deck near the main hatch, making the fitting of the forecastle (the small cabin in the bow), half deck and poop deck easier.
The temporary shed was removed on June 6 and the hull was launched on June 10. It rained hard the night before and the bilges filled with rainwater. On the morning of the launch, volunteers desperately tried to pump out as much of this water as possible; there was some discussion that the crane hired to place the ship in the water was barely rated to handle the weight of the hull dry. A crowd assembled along the river and small boats motored out into the Hudson for the event. The owner’s wife christened the ship by breaking champagne on the bow. The crane successfully picked the hull up and then crawled over a bed of timbers to the river’s edge where the ship was gradually lowered into the river amidst cheers and musket fire. Later, we learned that the crane’s boom cable had come out of its seat and that it was a small miracle that a complete failure had been avoided. Work on the upper portions of the hull resumed almost immediately.
Nick Benton began the training of the volunteer sailing crew the following week. We learned of the appropriate roles of the ship’s officers, the difference between commands and orders, and seventeenth century sailing handling techniques. Goosewinging, lacing-on-bonnets, up-ending the sprits’l, cockbilling, tricing, club-hauling and smiting became part of our new lexicon. Each sail and its handing were covered separately. Days later, Benton was killed in a shocking accident on the other side of the river in Rensselear. He was removing the shrouds from a coastal schooner when the mast he was perched atop broke, pitching him 80 feet down to the deck below. It was his 35th birthday. Sadly, his wife and children witnessed the accident. A memorial service was arranged aboard the Half Moon two weeks later. Nick was the charismatic force behind the project, and although it continued, the enthusiasm of the volunteers and the pace of work waned. The summer tour schedule, revised many times, was finally scrapped.
Nevertheless, the shipbuilders and volunteers found several ways to shake off the gloom. Once the masts were stepped and the main yard and sail were rigged, an evening film festival was staged, projecting images onto the huge sail. Gunnery practices with the replica cannon (four brass three pounders mounted on the orlop deck) were scheduled. One volunteer slipped a small concrete-filled can into the muzzle of one of the guns and watched it hit the far bank of the river. On another occasion, a blank round was fired just as a local dinner cruise boat was docking behind the ship, startling the pilot and making him miss his landing. A complaint was lodged with the Coast Guard. As the rigging neared completion, plans were made to turn the ship around so that finish work could be more easily completed on the starboard side. This became an excuse to take the ship out for an “evening spin,” which became her unofficial maiden voyage. It was a near disaster.
Join us again next Friday for the Part 2 of the "Half Moon" adventure!
Muddy Paddle grew up near the Hudson River and always loved ships and boats. A job change in 1988 brought him to an office near the site where the Half Moon was being built and he became involved as a volunteer. Muddy learned the ways of seventeenth century sailing and accompanied the replica ship on a series of adventures and misadventures on the river, in New York Harbor and even offshore. He maintained a journal, which served as a reference for on-board terminology and operations as well as a place to record a few highlights of his trips. The accounts presented here, and several of the illustrations, were based on this journal and his recollection of these trips.
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