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With wood scarce, Mayflower II is miles from Plymouth

The Mayflower II is being restored at the Fairhaven Shipyard. Some Plymouth shops  have seen a decline in business.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

The Mayflower II is being restored at the Fairhaven Shipyard. Some Plymouth shops have seen a decline in business.

PLYMOUTH — Depictions of the Mayflower II, the replica of the 17th century ship that ferried the Pilgrims to New England, can be found all around this seaside community, from tchotchkes sold in souvenir shops to the side of a local taxi, to the bottle cap of a locally brewed beer.

But there’s one place you won’t find the Mayflower: its berth in Plymouth Harbor.

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The 56-year-old replica is stuck in dry dock in Fairhaven, unable to complete all the repairs to its hull and frame because it can’t get enough of the right kind of wood, durable white oak. Delays in getting the lumber — which is extremely difficult to find in just the right size, shape, quantity, and quality — could leave Plymouth without one of its main attractions for much of the summer, disappointing many tourists.

“We’ve been talking about it the whole trip, the Mayflower replica,” said Jenni Williams, 22, of California. “We all get up to the dock and are like, ‘Shouldn’t it be really big and obvious?’ ”

Visitors stopped at the Maritime Exhibit near  where the Mayflower II is usually docked in Plymouth.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

Visitors stopped at the Maritime Exhibit near where the Mayflower II is usually docked in Plymouth.

The missing ship is also disappointing neighboring businesses, which say daily foot-traffic is down by as much as 50 percent. A dockside exhibit on the Mayflower is still operating — at a reduced rate — but without the ship, some tour operators are rerouting buses away from the waterfront.

“It’s killing us,” said Jon Gibbs, who along with his wife, Laurie, a descendant of Pilgrim Richard Warren, runs four businesses across the road from Mayflower II’s berth. “It’s a not the real Mayflower, it’s a replica. Let’s get it back here.”

On a recent sunny weekday, only a few shoppers browsed the items in the couple’s shops. Laurie Gibbs estimated that sales have plunged 20 to 30 percent without the Mayflower II. “You’d think on a nice day like today, the waterfront would be packed,” Laura Gibbs said, surveying her nearly empty store.

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The Mayflower II has been a popular tourist attraction since the mid-1950s, when Warwick Charlton, an Englishman who served with American forces during World War II, partnered with Plimoth Plantation to commission the replica and have it sailed here from Plymouth, England. The project was meant to commemorate the cooperation between the countries during the war.

The original Mayflower, carrying 102 passengers, some seeking religious freedom in the New World, was initially destined for the mouth of the Hudson River in present-day New York. But dangerous shoals and bad weather forced the ship to land on New England’s shores.

The repairs to the Mayflower II now are part of a seven-year, $2 million restoration to get the ship ready to sail for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ voyage — though its was not expected to need such extensive work so soon. When the ship was getting a new rudder and other repairs, an inspection revealed significant rotting in the hull.

John Tarvers replaced planks on the Mayflower ll stern. The ship needs white oak timber to finish the restoration project.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

John Tarvers replaced planks on the Mayflower ll stern. The ship needs white oak timber to finish the restoration project.

Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum that owns and operates the ship, quickly put out a call for lumber and has already inspected several hundred white oak logs. But shipwrights have only found a few that work for the hull. They are specifically looking for wood with a slight curve — to better shape the hull — and few, if any, knots that can compromise the integrity of hewn planks.

“They’re not off-the-shelf timbers,” said Peter Arenstam, manager of the maritime artisans department at Plimouth Plantation. “They’re cut from living trees that are growing in the woods.”

Modern materials, such as fiberglass, aren’t an option, Arenstam added, because they would break under the stress of the frequent movement of wooden timbers.

Shipwrights will fly to Virginia Monday to look at a batch of the wood that they hope just might get the ship through most of its necessary repairs. If so, the Mayflower II could be back in the water by the end of June.

Ivan Lipton, chief administrative officer of the Plimoth Plantation, said craftsmen are working as quickly as possible to get the Mayflower II seaworthy again, recognizing its importance to the local economy. The plantation’s attractions, which include the Mayflower II and a working grist mill, generate about $9 million in revenue annually.

Lipton says the plantation’s busiest months are July, August, October, and November, so there is still time to recover early season losses if repairs can be completed in coming weeks. But, he said, when the Mayflower II will return is “the big unanswered question.”

On a recent sunny weekday, Linda and Jack Cooper, retirees from Florida, wandered to the waterfront, but, without the Mayflower II, didn’t find much reason to stay.

“We went to the Plymouth Rock,” Linda Cooper said of the other nearby attraction, “but that’s about it. It’s a rock.”

At Pebbles Restaurant, a seafood shack and ice cream parlor, business has been slow, said owner Winny Brooks.

“I don’t want to blame it all on the Mayflower,” Brooks said, but “we have days where we come down, we open up and get ready for business and it’s just like a ghost town. It’s scary.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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