Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick

Jim Marsh with the Marco Polo

It's a Small, Small World

Times Globe staff writer

    Jim Marsh had never in his life seen a sailing ship.

   But his great-grandfather was a master builder of schooners in Newfoundland.

   "I've had relatives who were deck hands, sea captains and so forth, and I guess it's just passed down in my genes, so to speak."

   That's the 46-year-old former pulp cutter's only explanation of what drew him to his unusual hobby, of which he believes he is the lone practitioner in Saint John and possibly in New Brunswick.

   As a child, he assembled plastic models of cars and planes, but he always found himself coming back to building replica boats and ships, "the kind you would put on your mantle and stuff like that."

   In 1969, when stormy weather shut down his pulp operation now and then and left him with time on his hands, he recalled his Grade 4 teacher's stories of how sailors used to spend their leisure time at sea by building ships inside a bottle. Mr. Marsh decided to try his hand at it.

    And that was the turning point.

    Today, he turns his back on wife Darla, his dog and two cats, and shuts himself inside a tiny veneer-paneled study at the back of his Elliot Row apartment for two and three hours at a time, to peer down on. the hand-made mahogany vice barely 25 centimetres high that is his rigging dock.

   There is his Marco Polo, her black-and-white checkered hull gleaming, his masterpiece to date. The ship lies only 16 centimetres long from bowsprit to boom, with the top of her mainmast reaching only 11 centimetres into the air.

    Almost ready for the next stage, - to be folded and passed though the mouth of a one-gallon cider bottle - she is fully rigged, with all of her 21 paper sails billowing and her red banners flying in an imaginary wind. You can see anchors and hatches, and even a tiny signal cannon mounted on the foredeck. If you squint closely enough, you can even see microscopic red fire buckets at stations around the deck.

    And when Jim Marsh is here working on his ship, he is riding with his forefathers, amid the flashing, sunlit waves splashing against the sides of the hull.

    "I can feel the wind, I can feel the spray of the water, I can hear the creaking of the ship. It's just as if I was actually there. "

    His high-and-dry ship is surrounded in a skirt of its own rigging lines, in a jumble of threads that looks to an outsider like the splayed fibres of a badly frayed rope. The jumble makes perfect sense to Mr. Marsh, however. He has fed the lines out one by one through a myriad of invisible holes in the deck and hull, and fastened them temporarily tight by pinching them into the several hundred notches along the edges of a board mounted halfway down the vice pedestal. If he were to release the lines, the spars and sails would come crashing down, just as they would on a real ship.

   Including the stays and ratlines and sheets and halyards and lots of other rigging long forgotten by modern sailors, Mr. Marsh has installed 537 individual lines on his ship, according to the tally he has kept on his computer. Although it is no bigger than a very small banana, the mini-vessel has 38 feet of thread aboard it.

    The thickest of his three gauges of cable is dressmaker's thread. Many of his other lines are of embroidery thread, while the others are even finer than that.

   All of the lines, which hold the masts in place and keep the sails set on his Marco Polo, correspond to the authentic rigging plan of the original Saint John-built ship, he says.

   Fundy Cable subscribers will be able to see more of Mr. Marsh and his hobby next month, when it will be the focus of Cable-10's premier presentation of its new show Valerie Evens Presents, formerly known as Saint John Perspectives.

   Through his past 26 years and 20 ships-in-a-bottle, Mr. Marsh has always considered the Marco Polo to be his ultimate challenge for two reasons: the ship's historical importance and its intricacy. But his library searches turned up only a few blurry photographs.

    The situation changed for him one evening three or four years ago, when the Times Globe published the Marco Polo Project & drawings for their proposed Marco Polo II.

    "It showed the great detail of the rigging, which I really needed."

    Mr. Marsh obtained other drawings from project chairman Barry Ogden and design-committee chairman Alan Hutton, who also put him in touch with Bob Elliot, the New Brunswick Museum's specialist in the history of marine technology. After years of being stuck, he was able to wrap up his research in two months.

    In another part of Mr. Marsh's shipbuilding den is the cider jug, some 20 years old, which will contain the Marco Polo. He has masking- taped the jug firmly to its own pedestal, holding it steady on its side over the past several months while its artificial sea of deep- blue window putty slowly dried. He has yet to paint whitecaps on the waves which he carefully moulded with a tiny trowel mounted on the end of a wire. When the time comes to join the Marco Polo to its sea - probably at the end of next month - he will release the rigging lines from the board one by one, to slowly fold the sails and bring down the masts, while twisting the, yards sideways in line with the hull. The idea is to form a shape slender enough to fit through the mouth of the jug.

    "'When I built my first one, back in 1969, 1 had no idea at that point in time that there were any books on the subject, or any associations," he recalls. In 25 years of searching, he has been unable to meet any other active builder with whom he could share his hobby. The closest he has come to this was a former builder who had given the craft up.

   He had to invent his own techniques, and even his own tools, from scratch.

    "It took a good many hours of drawing designs on paper and then actually trying them on an actual ship to see if they did or did not work.

    "You feel that you are the only one, because you never run into somebody doing this. "

    He has since that time found a couple of books through the Saint John Regional Library, and .joined the Ships in a Bottle Association of America. But the windfall of technology he had hoped to gain through the association turned out to be a bust. Most of the American methods, he found out, were of ones he had already invented independently.

    Many of his other methods are still unique, as are all of his instruments, which he has fashioned out of pieces of coat-hangers from a dry- cleaner's shop.

    His thrill of a lifetime came last summer with the Saint John Festival of Tall Ships, to which he bought his deck-tour ticket well in advance.

    "Here I was for a number of years making ships and putting them in bottles, Now I had the opportunity to step on board these vessels, to touch their fittings, to walk their decks and to look up at the height of those masts and the length of their yards. That's something that I never thought would happen."

    When he has mounted his Marco Polo inside the jug on a temporary pedestal sticking out from the putty sea, Mr. Marsh will begin the lengthy job of combing apart all the trailing ends of rigging lines with a wire poker, drawing them out through the mouth of the jar, and taping them to the glass one by one.

    He will have to identify each line before he can begin the delicate job of gently pulling them in the precise order needed to raise masts in stern-to-bow sequence, starting with the mizzenmast, then the mainmast, then the foremast. Other lines will bring the yards around, launch the sails and set the paper canvas toward the imaginary wind as shown by the pattern of the waves.

    Then will come the job of gluing each line in place and clipping off the ends.

   "The whole point of putting a ship in a bottle is to try to do things in a way so that on the finished ship you won't see what wasn't on the original," he notes.

   His next step will be to unpin the ship from its temporary stand (his own invention) and set it aside in the jug, so he can push the stand into the putty. He will glue the hull into its permanent position on top of the scar.

   In addition to the glued line ends, the finished ship will contain 1,675 glue joints, according to his computer record, and 250 drilled holes. The hull, cabins, lifeboats and hatches are pine. The masts. yards, gaffs, booms and bowsprit are made of bamboo, which Mr. Marsh chose for its ability to accept large numbers of drilled holes at the thicknesses to which he has sanded these spars - down to one-64th of an inch (four- tenths of a millimetre) in places.

    Of all of the model's 924 individual parts, his favourite is the red-hatted and bearded visage of the namesake Venetian explorer which makes up the figurehead of the Marco Polo.

   His likeness of the elephant emblem on the stern of the Marco Polo brought an apology last week, because he had inadvertently painted it in white, instead of a more-authentic grey.

   With his Marco Polo only a month away from completion, Mr. Marsh has had no difficulty choosing his next project.

    If you've already built the ultimate sailing ship, the only step up from here is to build another model of the same thing, but do it better, he reasoned last week in explaining why he has a second Marco Polo on the way. He has already completed the unassembled parts, which he keeps in a large pill bottle.

    The innovation he is planning for the next model will be one small step for a man and one giant leap for tininess.

    "If you look in a bottle and see a ship at sea, you want to see a crew on it."

    To that end, he has already begun to fashion crewmen in various poses of exertion which can be applied in the future against the ropes and gear of the yet-unbuilt ship. Aided only by a television repairman's illuminated magnifying glass, he starts each figure by fashioning a stick-man from the hair-like copper strands he teases from the inside of electric lamp cord.

    "I apply white glue to the arms and leg: and head, and I keep building the body up with glue until it represents a person."

    The figure he brought out last week looked very human, in brown britches, yellow sweater and black hair. But the sailor, constructed to the same scale as his model ship, stands only five millimetres high. (According to New Brunswick Museum spokeswoman Allison Hughes, five millimetres is precisely the same stature as the Mexican bride-and-groom dressed fleas which the museum displays to the public from time to time - under a magnifier, of course.)

    That should be a challenge for Valerie Evans when she comes to Mr. Marsh's study this afternoon to tape her television program for next month's broadcast.

    She had better bring a microscope.

The article below was published in the Times Globe Newspaper, Oct. 23/95 Photo by David Nickerson