Matt Bale stared through a plastic shield as a lathe sent particles of Douglas fir in the air. Small piles of sawdust collected on the ground. Inch by inch, a tall ship mast was being created.
Bale and his colleagues at the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority are cutting a new
29-foot mast for the Niña, a reproduction of one of the ships that carried Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492 that was damaged earlier this month.
"(The Niña) couldn’t get the structural work done and the mast done" in time for its next commitment, executive director Les Bolton said. "We received a call from the vessel’s operator. He asked us to build a new mast for him and get that back to him in 21 days – complete, stained, ready to install in the boat. We’ve got quite a project to do."
The job requires stripping away all of the lumber’s sapwood and carving a block on the end that will allow the ship’s crew to run ropes through it to raise the sails.
The Niña, which is scheduled to appear at the Tall Ships Tacoma festival in July, needed repairs after a generator caught fire while sailing in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this month. It’s docked at a shipyard at Bayou La Batre, Ala., and is expected to receive and install its mast in time to reach its next scheduled stop at Biloxi, Miss., on Feb. 12.
The crew at the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport will turn the mast in the lathe for three days, and then cut for pulleys that run through the top of the mast. They will apply a hot-oil treatment for three days and then stain it before trucking the piece to Alabama.
The ship’s crew chose the nonprofit group in Aberdeen for good reason, Bolton said. It owns what he calls the world’s largest wood lathe; it can handle logs of up to 122 feet in length and 40 inches in diameter.
The lathe, which the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority purchased from Cascade Pole in Tacoma about five years ago, was used to build masts for several tall ships in Disney’s "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.
"We’re the people that can do the work really fast," site manager Kent Wall said.
"(The Niña’s crew) just knew us. We’re quite a name in the industry."
The Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority is municipal non-profit organization with 25 full-time employees that runs two tall ships, the Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, and several smaller ships. It also offers vocational programs for at-risk youths on its 214-acre grounds outside Aberdeen.
The history of coastal Washington and shipbuilding are intertwined, Bolton said.
"We did some research, and the Washingtonian Press (newspaper) in 1912 proclaimed that Grays Harbor were sparmakers for the world," he said. "Right here in Grays Harbor, they made the mast for Kaiser Wilhelm’s yacht. We’re trying to keep that tradition alive."