It’s not unusual for someone raised near the sea to build model boats, but for a landlubber born and raised in Tucumcari to created scale models, that stand as tall as some sixth graders. That is unusual. Yet, that is exactly what Bill Shays does to keep his mind occupied as he sits in his home just east of Tucumcari and what he has done for decades.
“I don’t know,” said Shays a Tucumcari native. “I just enjoy building them. I have ever since I was a kid.”
Shays is not entirely certain how it evolved that he has a fascination with building scale models of sailing ships from the 1700s and 1800s. But ever since he can remember, he has had a fascination with sailing ships. He thinks it might all go back to pirate movies like the ones Errol Flynn made.
Errol Flynn was a movie star in the 1940s and 1950 who specialized in action/adventure films and is most remembered for his “Swashbucklers” where he played a pirate or a sea captain in films like, Against All Flags, the Sea Hawk and Captain Blood.
“I guess those old pirates movies got to me,” said Shays. “It’s something that has always stayed with me.”
Each of his creations over the decades he has been working on them has been more and more complex than the one before until the most recent one he began working on roughly a decade ago. He chose not to go with instructions from kits or model companies. Instead, the retired Tucumcari resident found three sets of plans for real clipper ships and began working on them. He reduced each aspect of the ship to the correct scale before he began working on it. Then meticulously he began building his clipper ship.
Shay said he had originally thought about making the six-foot long craft radio controlled as he had on an earlier sailing ship he constructed, but somehow the placing the 21st century gear into the hold of a 18th century ship would not quite be right. Shay’s wife Frances said she knew when she married Bill “years ago” that he was already fascinated by the construction projects of ships that would take him out to the workshop or garage to work out a detail or perfect an especially tricky aspect of its building.
“I think he’s something of a genius when it comes to this,” said Frances. “The things he works out to get it just right is just fascinating. They have such detail.”
She points to his hand carving tiny wooden pulleys for the rigging so they would be just like the originals whose replicas might be seen in modern films like “Master and Commander.” He even had makes special tiny brass fittings for parts of the masts or deck and uses special rope-like thread that will mimic the originally rigging of the classic ships as perfectly as they can.
The decking of the current project offered a special challenge for the shipbuilder. He wanted something that looked as it would in the days a clipper ship would be sailing the oceans of the world. It had to look wooden and used, yet shiny as if sailors scrubbed the deck every minute they were not otherwise occupied.
He wasn’t sure what to do until a friend called and said he had some old doors that he was getting ready to throw away. When he saw them he knew what to do for his deck.
He stripped the veneer from the surface of the door in 1/8 inch strips and laid those down on his deck just as the old shipbuilders might have done two hundred years ago.
Shays is still trying to decide if he really wants to put sails on his ship realizing that they could mask the intricacies of the construction of his ship. He said he knows what sail maker he will contact if he does decide to put them on.
Frances said one of the great ironies of Shays life is that despite have built scores of complex sailing ships, he had never been sailing until recently when he went down to Texas to visit their son who worked for IBM.
“Bill Jr. took his father out for a day of sailing on one of the lakes there,” said Frances.
“And I loved it,” said Shays. “I really did.”