PLYMOUTH, Mass. – The Mayflower II, a replica of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America's shores in 1620, is getting a massive makeover. And it's not just cosmetic.
Its hull is rotting; beetles are gorging themselves, Thanksgiving-style, on some of its timbers; and half of what lies beneath the waterline needs replacing.
"We have issues all over the ship," said Whit Perry, director of maritime preservation and operations at Plimoth Plantation , which maintains the replica that Britain built and sailed to the U.S. as a gift of friendship in 1957.
"She needs major structural frame repair and planking," he said. "Without a project of this magnitude now, her days would be numbered — and that would be tragic."
Over the next 2½ years, skilled craftsmen with the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at Connecticut's Mystic Seaport will complete a $7.5 million overhaul to get the vessel ship-shape for 400th anniversary festivities in 2020.
An estimated 25 million people from around the globe have boarded the 60-year-old ship. Generations of schoolchildren have clambered above and below decks to learn about the original Mayflower and the hardy settlers it carried to the New World.
But this Thanksgiving, there's nothing but an empty slip on the waterfront near Plymouth Rock, where the national treasure usually sits.
It won't return until 2019 from dry dock in Mystic, where a live webcam has been set up to provide 24-hour views of the reconstruction.
"This is an opportunity to preserve a piece of history and allow millions more people to experience her," said Plantation spokeswoman Kate Sheehan. "Immigration, journeys, where we come from: These are profound questions, and they're really relevant in our current political climate."
Although a crowdfunding campaign to raise $250,000 fell short this month, Sheehan said private donors, corporate sponsors and government agencies so far have contributed more than $7 million. The ultimate goal is to amass $12 million and create a cash reserve for future maintenance.
"It's vital to preserve it," said Harold Closter, director of the Smithsonian Affiliations, a partnership that includes the Plantation and the Mayflower II. "The ship itself, even though it's a replica, is such a central icon of the peopling of America."
Perry took over stewardship of the Mayflower II and the restoration project in 2014, after spending a decade caring for similarly square-rigged ships in Jamestown, Virginia.
The first step was what he calls "exploratory surgery" — carefully removing planks and X-raying iron hardware to grasp the full scope of the damage.
Experts determined the 106-foot ship is in surprisingly decent shape for a wooden vessel exposed to six decades' worth of the elements. That's good news, because junking the ship and building a new Mayflower from scratch — an option once under consideration — would have cost $15 million.
But they also found enough rot and other deterioration to warrant renewing 40 percent to 50 percent of the vessel.
Another unpleasant discovery: A species of beetle that normally lives on land somehow got aboard and attacked the bottom. Perry insists the infestation is merely "a minor nuisance" because the wood the beetles were feasting on already needed replacing.
The Mayflower II will be restored and refitted using the same materials and methods employed to build it. Boatsmiths will use white oak from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Virginia, and 20,000 board feet imported from Denmark.
"We're getting the ship ready for its next 60 years of life," Perry said. "In 2019, hopefully we'll see her sailing back to Plymouth in her full glory. That's an incredibly exciting prospect for me."