Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick


The Guardian/Nigel Armstrong -David Thomson of North River, P.E.I. looks over a model of the Marco Polo he is constructing using wood salvaged from the wrecked ship by a farmer when it sank off Cavendish on July 25,1883. Mr. Thomson, an accomplished maker of musical instruments, constructed the model from a piece of wood just 17 centimetres in diametre and 25 centimetres long, which he split and sawed into more than 2,000 tiny pieces. He estimates he has put some 250 hours of work into the model over the past two years. He hopes to complete it this winter. Next summer, on or as close as possible to the 122nd anniversary of the Marco Polo's sinking, he hopes to sail the model over the site of the wreck. The original Marco Polo was launched from a shipyard in Saint John's Marsh Creek in 1853, and set a record as the fastest ship in the world.

Island model builder hopes to sail mini version of Marco Polo
David Thomson of P.E.I. has great plans for the famed vessel once his replica is complete

December 09/04

    The famed Saint John-built clipper ship, Marco Polo, may sail again.
   Or, at least, a tiny version of it that musician and model builder David Thomson of Warren Grove, P.E.I., is painstakingly crafting from a piece of planking a local farmer salvaged when the vessel foundered and sank off Cavendish on July 25, 1883.
   Mr. Thomson has some big plans for his little model, which is just 589 millimetres (roughly two feet) long, once he adds intricate rigging to the nearly-complete hull over the winter months ahead.
   On, or close as possible to the 122nd anniversary of the Marco Polo's demise next summer, he dreams of being able to sail out of Stanley Bridge, along P. E.I.'s northern shore, to the ship's watery grave - about 1,000 feet off Cavendish Beach - "and re-sail my model over the wreck."
    If Mr. Thomson, 62, gets his way, there will be music by his band P.E. I. Country and a guest list of at least 60 or 70 people, including Elmer Peters, whose father Jeremiah salvaged the Marco Polo planking, and Tommy Gallant, who found the wreck about four decades ago.
   "And I would like to have a priest and minister, or perhaps both, do a little service," Mr. Thomson said Wednesday. "I've read that on a voyage from Liverpool to Australia, there were 55 people who died of measles and there was one person who died salvaging material after she sank off Cavendish."
   It was at that time, he said, that Jeremiah Peters of Mayfield salvaged a 30-foot-long, 10 by 10-inch beam from the Marco Polo, which became the main beam in his house in 1983, when a new foundation was built.
   The old beam was chucked behind the barn. It lay there for years until Elmer Peters sold the property and took it with him.
   "It wasn't 10-by-10 anymore," Mr. Thomson said. "It was ate out with ants and rot and was only seven inches in diameter. And the piece he gave me, it was seven inches in diameter and 10 inches long."
   That was in 2002.
   Since he was already a maker of violins, mandolins, guitars and even a stand-up bass, his first thought was to make a mandolin. But in talking with his good friend Alan MacRae, one of them came up with the idea of building a model of the famed sailing vessel from which the wood came.
   "I chopped the block into pieces with an axe and then I used a band saw to make little planks," he said, explaining his approach. "And out of those little planks, I made jigs sort of to form the ribs into the proper form for the ship. And then, I made planks to do the hull and the deck and the masts."
   Amazingly, Mrs. Thomson has used 2,000 pieces of wood and still has plenty left.
   "I have worked on it for two years, a total of 250 hours to get this far," he said, "And it's not complete. I have the copper bottom put on it, and I have the copper looking sort of antique by putting sulphate on it that made it turn green. The copper is just a foot above the water line, down to the keel. The top part of hull and deck is black and white."
   Along with the rigging, this winter's work will include carving anchors out of one of two pieces of steel that came from the original Marco Polo beam. He said the the younger Mr. Peters, now nearing 91, vouches for the authenticity of the plank salvaged by his father in 1883.
   "I knew the Marco Polo was carrying lumber when she went down, and questioned whether it could be part of the load," said Mr. Thomson. "I was told `no', because there were two steel pins in it."
   Mr. Thomson has had no contact with Saint John schoolteacher Barry Ogden, the visionary behind Saint John's own Marco Polo project. However, he said he did get architectural drawings of the Marco Polo from the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John and has visited the Port City to check out two larger models of the vessel, including one now on display at Market Square.
   "I didn't know how the rigging worked."
   Mr. Ogden spent 18 years pushing a floating replica of the Marco Polo for Saint John but, due to the high price tag, settled for a one-third scale, nonsailing replica now under construction. When completed, it is expected to find a home as part of the Saint John's waterfront development.
   Mr. Thomson would like to see his model displayed, too.
   In the end, however, the father of three grown sons, and grandfather of four, would like to see it stay in the family. "When you build something, you hate to part with it," he said.
   Mr. Thomson said he approached the whole project as a hobbyist.
   "If you make it a job, it just ruins it," he said. "So, I just work at it when I'm in a mood to work at it."
   The original Marco Polo was launched from the yard of James Smith at Marsh Creek on April 17, 1853. She was the largest ship the yard had built.
   On her most famous voyage, she sailed from Liverpool to Australia in just 76 days, making her the fastest sailing ship in the world. Previous voyages had taken 100 to 120 days.