Capt. Brian Mitchell’s calloused hand smoothed over the fine dust on his nearly finished half model of M/Y Aqualibrium in late May. The grains of three kinds and colors of wood blended seamlessly under his touch, undulating in exactly the spots they should.
He paused over a flaw undetectable to an observer who was left to wonder how Mitchell’s course hand could feel the faint ripple he insisted was there.
The answer, of course, is that Mitchell knows what he’s doing. Those hands have built dozens of wooden boats over his career, including yachts, ferries and work boats. And most of them started with half models just like this one.
“Today, a half model is more of a display model than an actual one,” Mitchell said, explaining the rake of the stem, the longitudinal trim and the table of offsets. “The original one was destroyed to take the offsets from, and to make drawings off of.”
Mitchell’s model is destined for greater things. Unlike half models of yore that were built to make drawings, this one was built from drawings and will be presented to the owner this summer as a token of appreciation from him and his wife, Mate Sue Mitchell.
“We wanted to do something for them,” Brian Mitchell said. “They are really nice, fun-loving people at heart. We’ve had a lot of nice times with them.”
The half model is a 20:1 replica of the hull of the 15-year-old, 131-foot megayacht. At 6-foot-6-inches, its dark walnut, mahogany and basswood striations are protected under 50 coats of sealer and varnish.
It took him more than four months to build, including all the time it took to create the templates, select the wood, and scour eBay for the old brass hand tools he needed. Mitchell hasn’t made a half model in decades — Sue has known him for 30 years and never saw him do it — but the desire and the process all came back to him when he found Aqualibrium’s drawings.
He couldn’t resist looking at them any more than he could resist imagining what the half model would look like.
“I was organizing the engine room when I found the drawings, the line plans,” he said. “It just presented itself as a great opportunity for me to relax and do something to give back to the owner in appreciation for what he’s done for us.”
In 1966, when Mitchell was a teenager, he started an apprenticeship in Australia as a wooden boat builder. By the time he was 21, he was building boats of his own.
But life and work have gotten in the way of Mitchell making things with his hands.
“We’ve been so busy chartering over the years that I haven’t had time for my hobbies,” he said, noting that over the spring, he spent five nights a week working on the model, often for hours at a time.
Mitchell credits Bradford’s supervisors with making the project a reality by allowing him a workbench in its wood shop and a little locker for his tools. When the day wound down, he’d wander to the shop and set his hands to building something. Stress and minutes melted away.
“Four hours goes like that for me,” he said, softly snapping his dusty fingers. “But I wouldn’t be in here 15 minutes before someone would come up and ask me what I’m doing. It’s been a very social project.”
Bradford’s carpentry foreman, Andrew Barnett, watched the project from the beginning.
“It’s so unusual, he said. “You don’t see this anymore.”
The Mitchells noted that plenty of yard crew and customers alike stopped by to rub a hand over the shapely hull.
“He’s surprised us all,” said yard superindendent Colin Lord. “He’s made a lot of heads turn.”
” A lot of people don’t understand that there’s a life behind captains,” Mitchell said. “No one knew I could do this.”