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Mayflower II faces cash woes, wood-hungry beetles

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The Mayflower II was visible from Surfside Smokehouse on Plymouth’s waterfront earlier this summer.
The Mayflower II was visible from Surfside Smokehouse on Plymouth’s waterfront earlier this summer.John Tlumacki

The Mayflower II might not be safe for visitors in several years unless an ambitious fund-raising campaign reaches its goal to restore the 60-year-old replica of the ship that carried the Pilgrims to Plymouth, according to the vessel's owner.

That campaign is $3 million short of the $7.5 million goal it has set for Nov. 15, according to Kate Sheehan, spokeswoman for Plimoth Plantation, the nonprofit organization that operates the ship.

Plimoth Plantation officials said they are confident the goal will be reached. However, they added that the money is critical if Mayflower II, which has attracted 25 million visitors since its arrival in 1957, is to continue its educational mission -- let alone sail again for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims' landing in 2020.

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"The ship would, at some point, very quickly become beyond saving," said Whit Perry, director of maritime preservation and operations for Plimoth Plantation. "It's not an option not to complete the preservation effort on this national icon."

The needs of the ship are daunting, and not only because Mayflower II sits in the mud of Plymouth Harbor about four to six hours a day during low tide.

A land-based insect -- the wharf-boring beetle -- has invaded the wood and much of the hull is rotting. About 60 percent of the planking below the waterline must be replaced, Sheehan said. New framing also is needed, as well as a sizable chunk of the deck.

The ship currently remains open for visitors.

However, a leading marine surveyor has told Plimoth Plantation that "if we do not embark on this restoration, its days are numbered," said Perry, who also is captain and master of the Mayflower II.

"The greatest risk is that she would not be able to remain at her berth and be boarded by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year," Sheehan said.

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The Mayflower II.
The Mayflower II.Plimoth Plantation

That assessment comes three months after the ship returned from extensive repairs at the Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard in Mystic, Conn. Workers replaced the half-deck and topmast rigging while restoring the space where the Mayflower's passengers would have been confined, called a "tween deck."

The plan is to send the ship back to Mystic for another round of extensive repairs, with the expectation that the Mayflower II could sail again before 2020. The 106-foot vessel has not sailed since spring 2014, when the excursion was filmed for a Ric Burns documentary.

Sheehan said that reaching the fund-raising goal of $7.5 million would trigger an additional $1.5 million from an anonymous donor. That gift would help close the gap toward an overall $12 million target that Sheehan said would help pay for future operating costs and maintenance.

"There's a tremendous amount that goes into this," Sheehan said.

That includes searching the world for timber needed as replacements. There is "defect-free oak," some of which has been purchased from the Danish Royal Forest, Sheehan said. There is white oak needed for joints. And then there is Douglas fir, which will come primarily from the Pacific Northwest.

Despite the current shortfall, Plimoth Plantation officials said they expect Mayflower II will be towed to Mystic in November. "We are working with the assumption that we are going to close the gap somehow," Sheehan said.

The ship has become a centerpiece of Plymouth Harbor since it sailed to Massachusetts from England 59 years ago. The vessel was built with donations from the British people and sent overseas to acknowledge the historic ties between the countries and also as gratitude for American support during World War II.

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Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.