The ship built by locals who had never made so much as a rowboat before is now sailing the Mohawk River.
“I feel like I’ve given birth, although this is probably not as painful,” said Schenectady County Historian Don Rittner, who conceived of the project four years ago despite having no money, no volunteers and no place to build a boat.
Project manager Greta Wagle, who organized an army of volunteers while beating the bushes for supplies as rare as old lead and unusually-bent trees, said the process was far worse than giving birth.
“I feel like I’ve given birth to quadruplets!” she said.
More than one volunteer cried unabashedly as the Onrust was rolled out of its barn at the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction, slowly revealed in all its glory. It was the first time any of them had seen the entire ship at once, and no one
had seen it finished — painters were still working until just after it started to roll out of the barn.
Nearly 100 volunteers watched anxiously as a truck began to tug the boat toward the water. At first, they were thinking ahead, to the big test: the water. But as the minutes went by without the boat moving an inch, they began to worry that it would never get to the river.
Men rehooked the truck. They accelerated slowly. The Onrust stayed put.
They gunned it. The Onrust still didn’t move. Two volunteers looked at each other in dismay.
“We’ve got enough people for a chain gang,” one suggested. Her friend laughed and moved toward the ropes.
“We’ve solved harder problems here before!” she said.
Just then, Frank Del Gallo revved up a bulldozer. He backed it up to the truck and tossed out a chain.
Some volunteers looked dubious. Could John Deere move what a truck could not?
Then Del Gallo hit the gas. His bulldozer chugged forward steadily. Behind him, the truck began to move.
It’s not the first time Del Gallo has saved the Onrust. When the boat had no insurance for Wednesday’s launch, he put it on his pool company’s policy. When the Canal Corp. required a permit just an hour before the launch, he pulled out a twenty to cover the cost.
“Because it’s part of our history, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s good to bring the old days back, isn’t it? After these days!”
Onrust volunteers take their history seriously. They built the ship using 17th century techniques, even going so far as to warp every plank by hand, bending it over a fire as it steamed.
In later years they allowed themselves to use drills and chainsaws — and installed an engine for safety — but all of the critical parts of the ship were built just as the Dutch would have done it 400 years ago.
It was the experience of a lifetime.
“It felt like being a part of history,” Debbie Bowdish said. “I have a plank on that boat that I cut, measured, fire-burnt. I’m the only woman who did that.”
sweat and blood
Other volunteers have more permanent memories of the process, from scars to joint injuries.
Mike Doraby fell into the engine and hurt his shoulder as he jumped on a plank to jostle it loose. Like many others, he’s retired, and doesn’t heal as fast as he once did.
But he celebrated his 62nd birthday Wednesday by working nonstop on the Onrust’s finishing touches.
“My birthday present from the universe will be if this thing launches without a hitch,” he said.
At least it was a bright and sunny day. Volunteers recalled working in blizzards to get the job done in just three years.
“I remember working the rigging at night last fall with sleet coming down,” said Tom Porter. “It only got better when the mud froze.”
But he loved every minute of it.
“We knew it was going to be every weekend for as long as physically possible every winter,” he said. “It was unpleasant, but we were learning techniques — there’s only probably four people in the world that know about 17th century rigging. It was exciting.”
And in any case, he’d signed up to do it.
“Everyone here’s a volunteer because you probably couldn’t pay people to do this,” he said with a laugh. “We thought it would really be something to look at that boat on the water and say, ‘I helped build that.’ It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Others joined the project when organizers asked them to donate their centuries-old trees. More than $2 million worth of lumber was donated over the course of the three-year project.
The sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet gave a swamp oak that was felled by lightning. Jim Ryan gave three of his oldest, tallest tamarack trees, which became the mast and boom. He finished the boom with just minutes to spare Wednesday.
He couldn’t wait to see the sails raised on his lumber. But a few volunteers said they almost hated to let the ship go.
“We’ll have to discover what we did before,” said Win Bigelow, who described the ship-building as his major preoccupation for the past three years. He has been working on it since the very first day, when they erected the pole barn to house the boat.
On Wednesday, he was still working so hard that he hadn’t yet paused to reflect on his massive accomplishment.
“I’ve been so darn busy I haven’t had time to think about it,” he said. “It’s been a long, hard road, but it’s gone by quick.”