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Restoring the Gazela

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

For over a year, I've been enthralled with the intricate textures and rich colors of the hull of the Gazela, a Portuguese 3-masted barkentine originally built in 1901 to fish for cod off of the coast of Canada. I had admired her from the pier at Penn's Landing for months before seeing people aboard, working on her. They informed me that they were members of the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild and that anyone over age 16 could sign up to volunteer to help with the restoration of the ship. I was so excited! Plus, it only seems right that I should do something to give back to the ship that has provided me with so much inspiration and enjoyment. If you'd like to see all of my paintings of her, they are here.

I volunteer once a week and am mostly in charge of sanding, varnishing, and repainting. There are other people who are extremely skilled with carpentry and all manner of shipbuilding-related things, so they do the complicated work and I make it look nice. I put photos of my projects at the end of this post.

Last week, I got the opportunity to see something truly incredible. Guild members under the guidance of shipwright Levi replaced several rotten planks in the hull of the starboard side (that's the right hand side above water). The carefully measured and shaped giant planks are placed in a hot box of steam for hours beforehand to make them more pliable and easier to bend to the curvature of the ship. Then, they are hammered and clamped into place. Click photos to enlarge.

This footage was from later in the day, but in the interest of showing the process in order, I'm posting it first. Here are Marcus, Rob, Matthew, Nolan, and Levi positioning a plank. Io, Bob, Patrick were also involved in the process, but unfortunately I didn't get photos of everyone. If someone can tell me the names of anyone I forgot, they also deserve credit and I'll add them.

Once the plank is initially placed, it must be smashed into the perfect position with an assortment of mallets with different names and sizes. They put various pieces of wood between the mallet and the plank to avoid damaging the wood with direct force. The one that goes on the end is called a shorty plank.

Nolan coated the frame in tar to help with waterproofing and adhesion. Once the new wood was in place, Bob secured it to the frame of the ship with enormous bolts.

In order to avoid splitting the wood, holes are drilled in which the bolts will fit. Obviously, it will not do to have your ship full of bungholes, so you have to seal them over with a cork-like piece of wood called a bung. This is where I come in.

I cleaned the tar out of the bung holes using a series of popsicle sticks and acetone-soaked rags. It resembled footage from an extreme earwax removal video. Then, Io came behind me with epoxy and sealed the bungs into the holes. Once cured, they will be planed fair to create a smooth, contiguous surface. You have to position the bung so that its grain is flowing in the same direction as the wood of the plank. Otherwise, they'll expand in different directions or different rates, cracking the plank, which is never good.

The bung holes are filled!

Here are some pictures of me sanding and re-varnishing the mizzenmast's boom. It is a horizontal piece of wood the size of a telephone pole that holds the bottom of a sail and swivels to control the angle of the sail. The mizzenmast is the third mast, the one at the aft of the ship. (I am learning ship words, so I may screw this up a bit and have to edit. I do well enough to take directions, though!)

This is 4 hours worth of work sanding 9 coats of paint very carefully, trying to get a smooth surface and remove as much as possible while not damaging the wood. The paint is peeling or missing in a lot of places, and we need to protect the wood from the elements, but optimally the paint should be removed first. The ship is 177 feet long, 140 feet on deck, so that is a LOT of sanding and repainting!

I'm so grateful for the opportunity to participate in this effort and meet all of these wonderfully unique people involved. A few people work there full time, in addition to volunteers who are historical preservationists, artists, carpenters, contractors, students, bar owners, property managers, and all sorts of other things. They all seem to love what they're doing and be happy to be there. You can volunteer or donate as well if you're so inclined.

I'm loving getting to know more about the ship, as well as getting the treat every once in a while where I get to climb down the scary rope ladder to the work float so that I can see the copper patina on the hull close enough to touch it. I'm stealing ideas for all sorts of new paintings, so stay tuned. Contact me for more information or to schedule a visit to see them in person.

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Lovely blog! As head spar scraper for many years I truly appreciate the work you are doing!! I did detailed painting and gilded the cork acorn carving in the bow. My last work on Gazela about 4 years ago.

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