Mr. Smith Meets Mr. Jones
Naval architect Melbourne Smith
Melbourne Smith is freezing half to death, but seems not to mind. He wears a thin winter topcoat and has left his leather gloves in the car, assuming perhaps, that a place as prestigious as the John Paul Jones House Museum is heated in the winter. It isn't.
As far as we know, the old back door to the house is the same one Jones used in the 1700s. It's very low, but Jones wouldn't have minded. He was five-foot-six and acted some say, a little like Napoleon. Maybe it takes a personality like Napoleon to attack an entire country with one tiny ship. Come to think of it, Jones probably used the front door. Shivering in the snow on the coldest day this winter, waiting for a man with a key, we have no such luxury.
Inside, the temperature is still below zero, but Smith, who is on the aft side of 68, has an icy chrome digital camera in his bare hands, and is snapping away happily. One of the nation's foremost maritime architects, Smith is on the trail of the tall ship Ranger, and that trail starts right here in Portsmouth, in these very rooms.
"Legend has it, "I say, pointing to a an oblong plate in a an oblong case, "that this is a piece of the crockery Jones was planning to take with him on the Ranger. But the dishes arrived too late, and Jones was already on his way to Great Britain."
In the center of the plate is the reddish-glazed image of a sailing ship. Could it be a clue to the design of the Ranger? The man who rebuilt the topsail schooner Pride of Baltimore (1812) twists his camera toward the artifact, bending to avoid the reflection on the glass case in the mostly dark and freezing room. The Pride of Baltimore, people will tell you, reanimated the economy of its home port. It drew tourists like a magnet. It gave the city a focus and a new soul.
Now Melbourne Smith wants to build another Ranger. He's heard that some of us are bandying the idea about, and he's come all the way from Annapolis to verify the rumor. Tom Cocchiaro of the local chamber of commerce, the man who revived the "rebuild the Ranger" concept is with us in the frigid parlor.
Tom, a Portsmouth native, sailor, and former high school football hero, has a camera of his own and is also impervious to the cold. A gentle giant, Tom bowed deeply as he entered the low back door of the Jones house. He calls himself simply a "facilitator" of the Ranger idea, defers attention, seeks expertise, promotes consensus, exudes energy. Like a surrogate mother, he appears to be carrying the concept to term, nurturing it while searching for the legal parents. It was Tom who suggested the column idea to me a few months back. I just threw the idea out, where it stuck like al dente pasta on a kitchen wall.
The public response was a tad frightening. People called. People wrote. The arrival of Mr. Smith in the house of Mr. Jones is further evidence that something real is happening. It's the right project, the right time, the right town. This concept is taking on a life of its own, kicking hard, threatening to become real.
Upstairs, in what we believe was Jones' rented room, there are few authentic artifacts, but the sense of history is still palpable. Melbourne Smith has come much closer to John Paul Jones than this. Smith hails from Annapolis where Jones body still floats in a metal coffin in an austere marble sepulcher below the chapel. The tomb at Annapolis, designed to emulate the one where Napoleon sleeps, is about death, but the old house in Portsmouth is about life. Jones plotted here, planned his strategy, struggled to find a crew, provisions, rigging, cannons.
"We're told," I say, indicating a little wooden model, "that this is one of the most accurate reconstructions of the Ranger.
I've heard that, but no one knows. No plans of the Ranger exist, no "lines were drawn" that have been found. The Ranger might have looked much like the Raleigh, built here in 60 days as one of the first ships commissioned by the infant United States. Some speculate that the British may have sketched the configuration when Ranger was captured, refitted and re-christened as Halifax. The British studied American designs to figure out what the heck made our ships go so fast and maneuver so well. They never quite got it right.
Melbourne Smith, meanwhile, is taking pictures of the model, his mind clicking faster than the camera. Cocchiaro is taking pictures of Smith.
This is the man who designed the replica whaling ship John Howland (1830), the Spanish galleon San Salvador (1542), the colonial ship Federalist (1788), the schooner Spirit of Massachusetts (1910) . Smith researched, designed and built commodore Perry's flagship Niagra (1813) and the schooner California (1850). He worked on the replica of the Endeavour in Australia. As a marine illustrator, he has published over 150 paintings. From Royal Canadian Sea Cadet to compass adjuster, navigator, commissioned officer and ship's master, Smith's maritime resume is hard to match.
An hour later the conference room at Yoken's Comfort Inn is crammed to capacity despite the escalating snowstorm. Thawed and animated, Smith shows us what we're up against, if we turn our words to wood. He's been there, done that many times and is undaunted by the idea of building a multi-million-dollar tall ship.
His slide show illustrates the process vividly. His drawings flesh out the details. Smith answers questions with ease, allays fears, points out dangers in the river ahead. He recommends tropical fruitwoods (they're cheaper), suggests a local building site (near Prescott Park), suggests a timeline (a year of planning and two to three years in production.)
Tom Cocchiaro takes the podium to thank Mr. Smith and all of us for coming. Someone needs to grasp the reins of the newly-forming "Ranger Foundation," he says. We in the audience nod in agreement. Many here have dreamed this dream for decades, but no one rises to captain the impossible journey.
"I'm not the leader of this group," Cocchiaro reminds those in attendance, "I'm just the navigator." Cocchiaro's stands tall. His voice is soothing, confident, his presence is dignified and reassuring.
It took Jones, with a
personality like Napoleon, to attack an entire country with one tiny ship
named Ranger. But this Ranger sails for a new era. It promises a
revolution of self-discovery for a city teetering on the edge of change.
Whoever takes the helm this time, if that person is among us, should be a
leader of a very different cut.
Article and JPJ by J. Dennis Robinson. Mebourne Smith photo coutesy of Privater Lynx.
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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