CAINHOY — As the Adventure sat in the water off land where the Carolina colony began, an unexpected threat arrived from the sky.
No one had any idea of what was going on until the reproduction 17th century trading ketch was taken out of the water earlier this year for its annual inspection and bottom cleaning.
That's when Josh Howard and his crew with Northeast Boat discovered the extensive termite damage. The bugs apparently got into moistened wood around the main mast, made a hive, and then chowed their way port-ward, down some planks and into a structural area of the boat.
"It's amazing how much damage they did in just a year," Howard said. "They turned it into sawdust."
After several weeks of painstaking work at a boatyard near the S.C. Highway 41 bridge, the damage has been repaired and the ship will return to Charles Towne Landing soon, about two months later than originally planned.
Around lunchtime Thursday, anyone along the Wando or Ashley rivers or along Charleston Harbor might catch a glimpse of its journey home to Oldtown Creek in the historic state park.
'It ended up sinking'
Charles Towne Landing has learned a lesson about the importance of maintaining the wooden ship that's one of the most popular features at the historic West Ashley site.
The first Adventure replica, which was displayed there for about 30 years, taught them the hard way.
"They didn't have much of a maintenance program," Howard said, "and it ended up sinking."
That was in 2004, and the state eventually agreed to spend $1.4 million and ordered a replacement. While it initially planned to construct the Adventure on site, the boat was built in Rockport, Maine, and sailed down to Charleston in 2008.
Howard's company, Northeast Boat, has come down at least once a year since then to check on how it's doing. The most regular work simply involves scraping off barnacles and repainting the hull with a marine grade paint that protects the submerged wood against worms. About every two years, the mast gets a fresh coat of varnish.
Northeast Boat removed the Adventure from the water in late January, and it then took a few weeks to identify the extent of its new problems, devise solutions and get together the needed timber and other materials. Howard's hopes of making a quick, small profit on a straightforward repair were dashed.
"They're not a typical boat owner," he said of the state of South Carolina. "You can't just call them up and say, 'We need more money.'"
Facing some challenges
The work mostly involved using a chainsaw to remove rotted, damaged chunks of the boat and then piecing it back together.
"All this stuff got really wet and moldy. The termites got into here and that's when they started their party," Howard said of the wood around the mast collar. "I took my pen, and I stuck it all the way into the mast."
Ben Hesse of Belfast, Maine, was among the crew Northeast Boat brought in to help with the job.
"I guess the biggest challenge was finding all the rot," Hesse said. "As far as rebuilding, it's fairly straightforward."
Another big challenge was doing major work without the equipment and materials readily available at their shop in Maine. Howard brought down what tools he could, borrowed garage space and power from a friendly neighbor near the boatyard and sought timbers from North Carolina.
"We have to get very creative on how to do certain things," he said, gesturing toward a chain saw modified to act as a band saw. "Normally, you would have a mill to do it, but nobody wants a boat builder knocking on their door to cut one piece of wood."
The rebuilding did involve some rethinking. Instead of replacing the damaged fore deck with the same 2½-inch-thick white pine, which is more prone to rot, they created a mix of yellow pine and marine grade plywood. It looks the same but should last longer.
While the white pine made the replica more authentic, Howard said, "They learned the hard way keeping it authentic wasn't the right way to go. ... Keeping it authentic kind of hurt them."
Now comes the hard part
Paul McCormack, director of the State Park Service, said the boat is missed whenever it's away for maintenance work.
"It’s a huge part of the attraction down there,” he said. While it's not a painstaking replica of the Carolina, the ship that the English colonists sailed, "it's representative of what they would have arrived on.”
This year's maintenance bill will come to about $250,000, but McCormick said the cost is usually much less most years.
Howard said one of the greatest obstacles simply is moving the boat between Oldtown Creek and the Charleston City Boatyard in Cainhoy.
The adventure actually has a small engine that powers a single propeller on its starboard side, but Howard said the engine has been balky, and the thrust from the propeller is canceled out if the rudder is turned to the right. Meanwhile, Oldtown Creek is navigable only during certain high tides.
"We've had some windy days going against the current when we can't keep up," he said. "We have a very big anchor, and it's been used more than once."
To minimize the drama on Thursday's trip, Howard said the ship likely will be towed most, if not all, the way home.
But next year, when Charles Towne Landing takes part in South Carolina's 350th celebration, the Adventure might be taken out again for a sail around the harbor.
And thanks to this year's work, the ship should have no problems navigating the local waters and helping modern day onlookers imagine what it was like when the Carolina colonists sailed into the harbor in April 1670.