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Keeping The Past Alive: Craftwork at Mystic Seaport

Standing beside the massive hull of the Victory Chimes, a three-masted ram schooner built in 1900, former UConn Football quarterback Casey Cochran says he found a craft and a career that filled the void in his life left by football and sports.

“I had a sports background. My dad was a coach. Didn’t have anything to do with boats or working or anything growing up,” Cochran said. “I’d been wanting to get away from it my whole life just to see what else I could do. I always had an inkling that I wanted to work with my hands and work with wood and I found it here.”

Cochran is rehabilitating the Victory Chimes at Mystic’s Seaport Museum, one of the only places on the East Coast that can handle rehabbing a wooden ship this size and age. He’s part of a large crew working on the hull. He’s dirty, sweaty and, most of all, happy.

He’s also quite good at it. Shipwright Chris Sanders says Cochran’s work ethic and natural aptitude took him from swinging a sledgehammer in 2018 to being a full-time employee building and restoring sea vessels from the 1800s.

“Guys like Casey, he hadn’t held a tool in his life till he got here and he’s one of the most valuable employees we have, he’s just a dynamo. He came to work with us on Mayflower II and showed enormous aptitude but also really good work ethic. He learned very quickly, and he produces a lot and that’s why we like having him around,” Sanders said.

Cochran stopped playing football because of concussions but still had a scholarship allowing him to earn a Masters degree in sports management, but after graduating he found himself in Mystic waiting tables and working odd jobs. One night at a local bar he met some guys working on the Mayflower II reconstruction project.

“They needed someone to swing a sledgehammer and I didn’t want to be a waiter anymore,” Cochran said. “I started working on the Mayflower and fell in love with it.” From there, he went on to learn woodworking from the other master craftsmen and then the actual craft of building, restoring and maintaining wooden watercraft.

Mystic Seaport is one of the few large-scale operations that keep traditions such as working on large timber vessels, coopering, blacksmithing and wood-carving alive. Their master craftsmen train incoming volunteers and recruits to ensure the tradition is passed along to future generations, both through the ability to do the work and teaching visitors how these old crafts from 150 years ago translate into real world skills and careers today.

It may sound odd that a football star with a degree in sports management suddenly turned to ship-building, but Cochran is hardly alone. Sanders attended a four-year college studying physics and psychology before deciding that wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. “I’d always been so obsessed with boats, and it turns out it’s even better than I dreamed,” Sanders said.

Krityavijay Singh was a public relations specialist working in New York City before deciding to leave it all to pursue woodworking, eventually deciding to attend the IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Newport, Rhode Island.

“For me, PR was not fulfilling enough, no matter the pay-scale,” Singh said. “This is instant gratification. When you’re doing something like this, it’s almost as close as you can get to magic. You have something that you conceptualize in your head and then you can hold it in your hand.”

With so much of life and work now lived in front of a screen, manufacturing and building done by machine and precision equipment guided by computers, these old-world skills and traditions may appear merely a form of entertainment and education for a family day at Mystic, but there is something more important in their preservation, something that drives the volunteers, employees and craftsmen at Mystic Seaport.

“We really have a major loss when we lose technology,” said Steve Gibbs, a retired website manager, now honing his woodworking skills hand-carving decorative ship figureheads. “We don’t know how the pyramids were built. We speculate but we don’t know.”

But some of those old-world skills came to a crashing halt in 2020 when the COVID pandemic struck, forcing museums like Seaport and businesses to shutter their doors for an entire season, and lay off the very craftsmen who were preserving traditions rarely seen in modern life. 

Keeping It Alive After COVID

The COVID pandemic wiped away much from life prior to 2020; lives were clearly lost, but so were many other staples of modern life like working every day in an office, face-to-face meetings, gatherings for eating out and entertainment and nearly a year of education for children.

It marked a tremendous and fast shift toward a new way of living. Society adapted through the ubiquitous screens and technology of our new age: Zoom meetings, online learning, working from home and, of course, binging Netflix. That change has positive and negative effects.

Mac Gauthier graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2021 while the university was still under COVID restrictions. “It was a little bit of chaos,” Gauthier said, standing in front of a blacksmithing furnace. 

She earned a degree in Design and Technical Theater and returned to the Mystic area where she had grown up. She applied to Seaport Museum as a seasonal interpreter and began learning the blacksmith trade.

“I can definitely say there’s been a resurgence in interest in blacksmithing in general,” Gauthier said, noting popular interest in the television series Forged in Fire. “People are really interested in this old school way of doing things, but the hands-on aspect is really wonderful for me.”

“Obviously, there are some individuals who are experts in those crafts and when COVID hit we had to lay staff off because we didn’t have any money coming in for payroll,” said Peter Armstrong, president of Mystic Seaport Museum. “Some of those individuals chose not to come back, so we lost a few of those. Some chose to come back at different times, some only wanted to come back for short time, a couple days a week, so we had to kind of pivot to make sure we can continue with those crafts.”

One of those pivots was a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services that “enables skilled trade specialists to train our newer staff on more advanced skills,” according to the Mystic Seaport Museum Magazine.

“We do a lot of our training here in house because as you can imagine not a lot of people start here with woodworking or coopering or blacksmithing experience and so a lot of what we do is training opportunities so people can learn and demonstrate for the public,” said Maria Petrillo, Seaport Museum’s director of interpreters. 

“We keep these skills alive; we all think it’s important,” Armstrong said. “When there’s people doing the skills, they learn how people must have done them during the period. They start to understand what might have happened, maybe not in the books, but what they really did, and they start to learn the skills in that way and pass those skills on.”

“We’re really developing information as well as copying what they did historically as we go along,” Armstrong said.

“Ship-smithing is definitely a kind of dying art,” Gauthier says. “Nobody makes harpoons anymore; nobody makes these specialized pieces for these ships like they did in the 1800s.”

Armstrong says he hopes the Museum and craftsmen can show the public the direct line between the past and present. He references their barrel-making – called coopering – pointing out that today’s cargo ships and shipping containers are direct descendants of barrels.

“You can make a real parallel between those barrels and the container ships and understand how relevant maritime transportation is – especially when it doesn’t work,” Armstrong said, referencing the supply chain back up and cargo ships waiting off the West Coast. “I want a 15 year old kid who comes in to understand that these crafts are still something that affects our lives.”

And with supply chain issues courtesy of COVID also came labor problems: employees, like those at the Seaport Museum, restaurants and other entertainment venues were laid off en masse, and when restrictions were finally lifted, many were slow to return. Job openings in the United States and in Connecticut remain high, but Armstrong says the Seaport Museum’s workforce is roughly the same now as in 2019.

“It’s not back to where I’d like it to be from a fulltime perspective because some of those craftspeople naturally, when COVID hit, some of them went into retirement, some decided to do a couple days a week, so bringing them back is part of these master classes to train people,” Armstrong said.

Romancing The Work

A romanticized notion of the past and trade work prior to the machine and internet age is certainly part of the allure of Mystic Seaport, but the allure to those touring the Seaport may be different from the allure drawing employees to craftwork — or to those who want to drop their corporate desk job and take up shipbuilding.

It’s hard work, for one. Cochran says he developed carpal tunnel syndrome from swinging the sledgehammer so much, necessitating his transfer to woodworking and thus moving up the ladder of skills.

Singh says his father, who works in finance, wants to retire and come work on boats with his son. 

Singh, who attended school for wooden boat building, says many people attempt to enter the trade through schools only to realize that it may be more difficult and intensive than previously imagined; half of the students don’t make it.

“A lot of them are going to school under the GI bill, so when they’re airplane pilots or combat vets they usually have a romanticized notion of what wooden boat building is,” Singh said. “It’s really just nasty, hard work most of the time, just really smelly, rotten wood. The older folks typically end up going back into what their previous profession was and they just use it as a time off thing. So, the romanticized notion of ‘I’m going to retire and become a wooden boat builder’ doesn’t exist.” 

So maybe ditching the computer, picking up a hammer and driving bolts may not be for everyone, but there are those who eschew the trappings of the office to find new life in keeping alive skills, crafts and trades that otherwise could be lost to history. And those skillsets are transferable to the modern world, as well. 

If you can make a barrel by hand, replace the hull of a ship, carve a figurehead or forge a harpoon, you can probably do a lot of other jobs involving wood, iron and precision.

“Someone can go open their own shipyard, some can go to other museums, some of them go to other places; they’re carpentry skills, but you’re kind of doing carpentry on a 300 ton boat,” Armstrong said.

The United States faces a shortage of trade workers as high school students are encouraged, by and large, to attend colleges and universities to make more money, but trades like carpentry, ironworking and woodworking can command good salaries and benefits without the burden of student loan debt.

With skilled trades and crafts workers in short supply, the earning potential only rises for everything from construction to plumbing to woodworking.

But there’s something more to the skilled craftwork practice, evidenced by the transition of people like Gauthier, Singh, Cochran and Sanders from colleges and office-based jobs to ripping up rotting wood from the hulls of 120-year-old ships or forging boat hooks in a furnace. They’ve found life anew in the very old.

“I think we’re just so immersed in technology, especially if you’re in an office job or a tech job, and you’re looking at a screen all day, so it’s really nice to do something where you’re not staring at a screen,” Gauthier said. “The simpler answer, especially with blacksmithing, is people like fire.”

“I’ve been lucky enough to learn everything on the job,” Cochran said. “I’m outside every day of the year, get to work on the water, get to work on these boats that have so much history. Not many people get to do this kind of stuff and I take a lot of pride in that and keeping the craft going and learning as much as I can so that we can pass it on and continue the traditions.”

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Marc E. Fitch, Senior Investigative Reporter

Marc E. Fitch

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels, along with numerous freelance reporting jobs and publications. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University.

1 Comment

  1. Ken Boudreau
    July 17, 2022 @ 10:39 am

    Marc,

    Loved your piece re Mystic Shipyard. I often go there and always enjoy walking among the big scale restoration projects. Like so many others I have a long time fascination with the era of whaling ships.

    I was particularly interested in the Casey Cochran story. I remember him well as a standout Uconn quarterback who had to give it all up after too many concussions.

    What a blessing to have a place like Mystic Seaport here in our state. Thanks so much for your well written story.

    Ken Boudreau

    Reply

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