Among the ever-present coating of sawdust within the rambling workshops of the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at Mystic Seaport are the tools and wares of deliberate craftsmen.
Here, massive timbers are cut into usable planks before being steamed to fit the hull of a boat. Machinists hunch their shoulders over the disassembled parts of an engine as they work to recreate its power. In almost every way, the work done at the shipyard is a throwback. It recalls an era of wooden vessels and work done the hard way — by hand.
And for much of his life, Walter Ansel has been a part of it.
“I think the business is magical and I think the trade is amazing,” Ansel said of building and repairing wooden ships. “It’s extremely rewarding to work with your hands. It’s a very special thing.”
As a teen, Ansel followed his father, Willits Ansel, to Mystic Seaport where he would sweep the floors, pump out the boats and absorb the culture that surrounds wooden ships. When Ansel finished college he took a job as a young shipwright at Mystic Seaport and helped with a restoration of the Charles W. Morgan in the 1970s. Then, looking for his own adventure, he completed a trade-school program to become a commercial fisherman. Ansel enjoyed being on the boat, he said, but long hours and low pay pushed him back to dry land after about five years.
He returned to Mystic Seaport and, today, is a senior shipwright determined to see the skills of boatbuilding carried forward.
Ansel was raised on the Connecticut coast after his father, a teacher by day and an amateur boat-builder on weekends, decided he wanted to turn his hobby into a career. When Willits Ansel traded the schoolyard for the shipyard, his son became immersed in what was, at the time, an affordable hobby. In high school Walter Ansel owned a 25-foot sloop.
“When I was a kid in Mystic, all the hippies had boats they were trying to fix up,” Ansel said. “Now, that has all changed. It’s really sad. My kids can’t even dream of that.”
Ansel’s lament is, perhaps, only partially true. His daughter, Evelyn, now a few years out of college, joined him at the Mystic Seaport shipyard where she helped with the latest restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, which began in 2008 and was completed in 2014. Together, Ansel and his daughter even wrote two new chapters for a book written by her grandfather in the 1970s on whaleboats.
Today, said Ansel, his daughter is working elsewhere in the maritime museum industry.
In addition to the work he does in Mystic, Ansel also spends a few weeks each summer in Maine teaching at the WoodenBoat School. The school opened 37 years ago, according to Rich Hilsinger, director, and Ansel has been a regular fixture since 1997.
“Walt is all about tradition,” Hilsinger said. “He’s a real historian and he brings a whole lot to his courses.”
The WoodenBoat School will see about 700 to 800 students this year, said Hilsinger.
Ansel’s affection for historical methods does not mean he’s uninterested in newer technologies. In fact, he’s working on his first-ever aluminum boat and is using computer software to help with its design. Ansel is in the second year of a correspondence course to better understand the science behind boat designs and, whenever he retires from the shipyard, sees himself as a part-time designer.
“Terminal boat love, I call it,” he said.
As a leading maritime museum in the country, Mystic Seaport is home to a recreated 19th century seafaring village, a Collections Research Center, art galleries, the Thompson Exhibition Center and a working shipyard with a special observation area for visitors. For more information, visit mysticseaport.org.
Editor's note: This story appears in the fall issue of Aspire. For more great content, you can page through the publication here.