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Captain of the Mayflower II prepares for a historic sail

Mayflower II Captain Whit Perry worked below the deck on the ship.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

MYSTIC, Conn. — He is the captain now of a majestic ship, a 106-foot wooden vessel that has sailed out of the yellowed pages of history and charted a historic course of its own.

Whit Perry looks like he was born to stand on its deck.

He could play himself in the movie. Salt-and-pepper beard. Blue flannel shirt. Tan work pants. And the easy-going, confident smile of a man who knows what it’s like — and what it takes — to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a boat.

Because he has done it.

In Perry’s mind’s eye, he already can see the celebration for the ages that will take place next spring when the Mayflower II, under his command, sails into Boston Harbor — accompanied by another storied vessel – on its way home to Plymouth.


“We’ll go out by Fort Independence and I have it on good authority from the commanding officer of the USS Constitution that when we turn, he’s going to do a 21-gun salute to the Mayflower. And then we’ll come back into the Charlestown Navy Yard,’’ Perry said.

“Unbelievable. I mean I have goose bumps. That is going to be amazing.’’

It certainly will be. Get your cameras ready.

And that remarkable voyage, signaling the seagoing renaissance of an emblem of New England’s rich maritime history, is all the more remarkable because it will be commanded by a kid from the Boston suburbs, who first clambered aboard the Mayflower II like many of us did: as a 9-year-old kid on a grammar school field trip.

“I remember it was a long bus ride from North Andover,’’ Perry, 57, told me as we sat in his small office just off the working waterfront of the Mystic Seaport Museum. “Boats were always — always — a big part of my life.’’


The voyage is remarkable for another reason, too. The Mayflower II — a replica of the original intended as a gift of appreciation from England for US assistance during World War II — was quite literally rotting to death at its berth in Plymouth Harbor.

The Mayflower II at the Mystic seaport Musuem.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In the years since it arrived in Plymouth in 1957 and 25 million visitors climbed aboard, oak planking and Douglas fir masts were decaying, showing their age in a way that even regular and routine maintenance could not prevent. The ship had never had a major restoration.

Even before Perry arrived as director of Maritime Preservation and Operations at Plimoth Plantation, three-quarters of the Mayflower II needed to be rebuilt.

”They’ve basically rebuilt that ship from stem to stern,’’ said Stephen Brodeur, chairman of the board at Plimoth Plantation, which owns and maintains the Mayflower II. “This is part of the cultural history of our country.

“Whit’s a leader. People like him and want to work with him. It’s easy to see that after 30 seconds with the guy. This is part of his legacy — a once-in-a-lifetime kind of project.’’

By the time the Mayflower II came calling, Perry had built the kind of sturdy career that makes it easy to see why he was asked to captain a piece of seagoing history.

In the decade before he arrived on the waterfront here, he was a maintenance technician and the relief captain at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a Virginia living history museum and home to three historic ships of its own.


Don Heminitz, a rigger, worked on the ship.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Eric Speth, the maritime program manager at Jamestown, said Perry had established himself as his foundation’s go-to guy, who could sail a ship or fix a balky motor with equal finesse.

When Plimoth Plantation called, Speth — somewhat reluctantly — told the truth.

“I said, ‘I have the right person for you. This is a person who’s a perfect fit for that job.’ I thought how sorry I would be to lose him,’’ Speth said. “He’s a patient leader. He served as a mentor to our volunteer crew. He was very patient and made people feel very comfortable learning something that is new and complex and difficult to learn. He got it.’’

And now he’s applying those skills on a national treasure where he took me on a tour on a recent morning under brilliant sunshine that danced across the Mystic River.

“This is the epitome of my career,’’ he said, running his hand across the wooden ship — oak from Georgia, yellow pine repurposed from an old pier at nearby Groton, Conn.

“This is where we feel the Mayflower Compact may have been signed,’’ he said, standing in the ship’s great cabin, referring to a 400-year-old set of rules for self-governance established by the English settlers who traveled to the New World on the original Mayflower.

“In 1620, you had 102 passengers who slept on the tween deck,’’ he said. “They were all crammed in down here. But in the 17th century, this was a high-tech machine.’’


The latest Mayflower captain has a boyish enthusiasm about his work. Ships and the sea are in his blood, which is apparent when he speaks about the captain who brought this ship from England to America in 1957.

Thousands hailed its arrival — some setting up telescopes in Truro — to witness what the Globe then described as “a beautiful sight with the sun glittering on its sails as it races towards it port of call, bone in teeth.’’

“[Captain] Alan Villiers was for me one of my heroes growing up,’’ Perry told me. “He was famous as the last of the deep-water, square-rig sailors. To sleep in his bunk — it really brings history alive and home to me.

The Mayflower II at the Mystic seaport Musuem.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“That type of history touches people. It really strikes a chord for them. And for me, standing in the roundhouse and sleeping in that bunk really strikes a chord in me.’’

Perry said maritime records show that the original Mayflower returned to England after landing in America in 1620. “We know it was cut up for salvage in 1624,’’ he said.

The work underway in Mystic is designed to place a fate like that off in a very distant horizon for its namesake. The people who are finishing Mayflower II’s restoration can feel that weight of history.

“To me, this ship has a history and a story in its own right,’’ 32-year-old Don Heminitz said the other day while at work on the mizzen shrouds, which to a landlubber like me are ropes that help support the masts. “Just to know that I’m following in the footsteps of people 60 years before me doing the exact same work is really neat. It’s an inspiration. It helps keep this story alive.’’


Plimoth Plantation said it has raised more than $9 million of the $11.2 million needed to complete the restoration project.

Keeping Mayflower’s story alive is now Whit Perry’s job. Actually it’s his solemn promise. He’s at work making sure the final 15 percent of the ship’s restoration is sturdy and secure and worthy of its history.

“The plan is to get it ready for the next 60 years of its life cycle,’’ he said. “It’s an organic material. Our hope is that with proper stewardship and regular maintenance, it’ll be ready for the next 25 million people to come across the deck.’’

But first there are seagoing voyages to New London and to Boston. There will be stops at Mass Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay and a trip through the Cape Cod Canal.

And then the Mayflower II will be saluted by the USS Constitution: Old Ironsides, which will never be dislodged from those yellowed pages of history.

Captain Whit Perry will stand then on the deck of the ship he has helped bring back to life.

It’ll be a salute for the ages.

Sarah Clement stood on the side of the Mayflower II as she worked on the rigging.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at