AMESBURY — The red, boxy building rises from a sweeping bend in the Merrimack River within sight of Interstate 95, set among a cluster of old homes on a narrow, curving street where maritime history is honored and made new.
The building belongs to Lowell’s Boat Shop, the oldest continuously operated wooden boatbuilder in the country, and it’s a place where yet another vessel requiring age-old craftsmanship is slowly taking shape.
This time it’s a 33-foot shallop, a reimagining of the small, open boat that brought the Pilgrims ashore from the anchored Mayflower in 1620. This summer, the boatbuilders and apprentices who climb into its belly and squat under its hull are restoring the vessel for next year’s 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in the New World.
“Oh, man, I can’t stay away from this,” said Kovas Saffo, a 17-year-old from Merrimac who worked with wooden pegs in the shallop one recent sunny afternoon. “I like the tools, and I like being right on the water.”
Saffo and other high-schoolers are volunteer apprentices who are helping with the restoration. They’re guided by master boatbuilder Graham McKay, the executive director of Lowell’s, which dates to 1793 and is a National Historic Landmark that now serves as a working museum.
“Our mission is to preserve and perpetuate the business here,” said McKay, who grew up down the street. “We’re building new boats all the time.”
The smell of freshly cut wood permeates the busy shop, where other small boats are being assembled. Low ceilings amplify the sound of craftspeople at work among sawhorses, stacks of planks, wood shavings, and even an old US Army “cannon heater” that provides warmth in the winter.
Over the years, Lowell’s boats have included the famed Grand Banks dory, the legendary small boat that became a mainstay on commercial fishing schooners from nearby Gloucester and far beyond. At the dawn of the 20th century, Lowell’s was producing 1,500 to 2,000 dories a year.
Today, the nonprofit shop still makes small vessels, including sailboats and motorboats.
“Like the kids, I just started by taking a class here,” said McKay, who negotiates the obstacle-strewn shop with the nimbleness of an old salt on a pitching quarterdeck. “For me, these are things of extreme beauty, and you’re creating a mode of transportation that can take you anywhere in the world.”
The shallop, by contrast, was meant for shallow water where larger ships couldn’t venture. In 1620, the shallop was used to explore Cape Cod after the Mayflower initially anchored off Provincetown; later, it was lowered to ferry the settlers to their new home, presumably without crashing on Plymouth Rock.
The Mayflower II replica, built in England and owned by Plimoth Plantation, fell victim to the elements in its 62 years as a popular tourist attraction in Plymouth Harbor. And so had the shallop, built in Massachusetts in 1957 at the Plymouth Marine Railway.
Now, while the 106-foot Mayflower II undergoes a massive overhaul at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, the shallop is receiving a meticulous makeover of its own for the quadricentennial celebration.
Kate Sheehan, spokeswoman for Plimoth Plantation, said choosing Lowell’s for the shallop project “was a perfect fit” because it joins two institutions with an educational mission and a deep appreciation for history.
“These skills, which we see so rarely today, make projects like this essential,” Sheehan said.
McKay imparts those skills from master to novice with a calmness injected with dry, wry humor.
“What are you going to do with this?” Somi Udin, 18, asked about a piece of soon-to-be-repurposed wood.
“Make it new and better,” McKay told the student from Whittier Tech in Haverhill.
To another apprentice, he offered this advice: “Don’t swing that any harder than you’d want to hurt your feet.”
Much of the reconstruction is being done below the waterline, including a new keel that will run the length of the boat. Pieces of live oak, cedar, and yellow pine are among the building blocks, as are leftovers from the Mayflower II restoration. Even part of a 19th-century pier in Groton, Conn., will find new purpose.
“I like the smell of the wood and the feel of the boat,” Udin said.
McKay does, too.
He links the allure of wooden boatbuilding to “creative problem-solving,” a puzzle made all the more challenging because of “natural materials that have inherent flaws in them, and you have to work in those constraints.”
His apprentices share his appreciation for the work.
“I’ve learned tons of skills,” said Jacob Cross, 16, of Amesbury High School.
By the time they leave the program, the apprentices will have dabbled in a hands-on world of geometric artistry that once was commonplace but has all but vanished. John Noon, a boatbuilder who on this day was advising students, fell under its spell long ago.
“I’ve never met a boatbuilder who didn't like his job,” Noon said.