Knock knock! This is not someone tapping on a door, waiting to be let in. That is the sound I heard as I passed a small wooden door. What kind of task was the owner of the house I was standing in front of, getting on with? I decided to come to a halt right there, out of curiosity. That stop turned out to be very constructive and extremely interesting: there, in a small workshop, shying away from the public eye, was a model ship builder.
Wooden battens, glue jars and varnish cans were neatly stored on shelves, and cardboard templates hung on a nail. The man, who was in his sixties, was very friendly and very inclined to talk about his passion and experience. He told me that his models are designed for retailers to sell to tourists who buy them while they shop in Curepipe during excursions.
In the early 1980’s, when unemployment rate was at its highest, few career opportunities existed and he randomly picked this job, which he learned under the leadership of a professional; blueprints at the time were supplied by the National Navy museum. Back in the day, when Camphor trees grew in abundance on this island, the model ships were carved in this precious wood and the figurines from the cypress tree. There has been a shift and the teck (Tectona Grandis) has since become more popular. He either buys it on construction sites or salvages piled up wood waste from demolition sites. He is often both surprised and thrilled to find planks of this precious wood or, on rarer occasions, pieces of ebony (Diospyros) in excellent condition. His masterpieces are made from these valuable raw materials.
He explained that all his models are assembled with utmost accuracy : the cardboard templates for the keel and the bridge; the couples would then be laid on a sheet of plywood, then carved. Once they are pieced together, the pairs must be symmetrically aligned, tested and glued-up. The wooden battens then cover them to form a carcass that will be polished to give a flawless cutting result to the model.
Model ships of The Pinta, the Niña and the Santa Maria which made up Christopher Columbus’s fleet (Spanish navigator of Italian origin, the very same one who discovered the New World in 1492), hold no secret for him. But my ‘interviewee’ also builds the Bounty, one of Captain Bligh’s frigates from the Royal Navy. Captain Bligh was especially known for the infamous mutiny on board his ship in 1789. Le Superbe 1784, a cargo ship whose hull is covered with copper plates to protect it from marine worms, remains one of his favorites, as does the Brick Négrier and James Cook’s HMS Endeavor. His most beautiful memory is the creation of the Jacht Heemsherck – Anno 1638, a very special order.
“Do you sew sails as well?” I asked. He laughed and confessed that he entrusts ladies who specialize in this field while he keeps a close watch and ensures the rig dimensions are respected. He adds the finishing touches to the work, as he is accountable for his own models and his reputation is at stake.
This easygoing, genuine gentleman whom I met by chance, is well aware that he creates masterpieces that can be found all over the world, and yet he would rather stay anonymous. Building model ships from his small workshop, opened at the first streak of dawn, while recycling demolition wood in excellent condition thus contributing to further preserving the environment, remains his greatest pride.
A small model takes up to a week to make and weather conditions largely determine the amount of time it takes for drying and varnishing. And so I promised myself that I would visit this beautiful shop in Curepipe during my next excursion, and that I would pay special attention to the model ships, these works of art.
I will most definitely smile thinking about this gray-haired man in front of his workbench in his workshop, who makes a living from his passion. I highly respect him for his sharp eye on his beautiful workmanship, these made-in-Mauritius model ships. A perfect example of our know-how!