Known as “Abe” to his friends, Ian Ablett, an 83-year-old resident of Iron Station, has just received the accolade of a lifetime. His hand-crafted steam launch, the “Ben Gunn,” has been received by the Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum in Connecticut.
“I could not feel happier and I am very proud that the Ben will continue to be enjoyed way beyond my lifetime,” Ablett said. “Do you know how many wooden boats are made each year around the world? And the most prestigious maritime museum in the United States chose mine. I’m truly honored.”
At the museum, the Ben Gunn will not only find its new home in perpetuity but will also continue its life as a passenger vessel on the Mystic River for museumgoers who will be able to enjoy the smooth ride and marvel at the steam engine working in full view.
Originally from Liverpool, Ablett served his five-year apprenticeship in shipbuilding there, where he excelled in all aspects. He worked in shipyards all over Europe and United States where he gained experience building "everything from Alaskan crabbers to nuclear submarines".
With his wife Sue's help, he built his own first boat in Seattle, a 50-foot sailboat named the “Bulowayo” and in 1975 they sailed to New Zealand and around the South Pacific for four years.
Upon their return, they settled in Hawaii, where Ablett worked at the Pearl Harbor shipyards on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines. It was during the following six years that he familiarized himself further with nuclear-powered turbines. This led him to other naval shipyards, then power plants and finally to Duke Energy's McGuire and Catawba power stations.
“When Sue died in 1998, he found purpose and catharsis in building the Ben Gunn around a stunning hand-crafted steam engine he had taken the three previous years to build,” Ablett’s daughter, Phillippa said. “Every component was made to a set of original blueprints from the late 1800s. A replica of the US Navy's reciprocating compound engine, its open design makes it robust, easy to maintain and runs almost silently.”
The Ben Gunn has a kerosene-fueled water tube boiler, whose 50 square feet of heating surface provides all the steam needed to power the engine (and hence the propeller) in just 10 minutes, Phillippa Ablett explained. A triple-rudder system provides steerage, making the vessel extremely maneuverable. Ablett designed the body himself, having drawn on years of inspiration attending the renowned Henley Boat Show on the Thames each year.
“He loved the vintage wooden watercraft which were a rich source of ideas and noted the details he liked most,” Phillippa Ablett said. “In 2003, he completed the 34-foot mahogany beauty, largely modelled after an Edwardian-era steamer, having lovingly crafted every square inch with precision and care. His materials came from Wilmington, Rhode Island and even France. The joinery, fit and finish are exquisite, her lines elegant and the ride is definitely one to remember. If there ever was a testament to a lifetime of passion, skill and craftsmanship, the Ben Gunn is it.”
Ablett almost finished another boat, the “Susie” with the intention of taking it on the “Great Loop” which is a continuous waterway that includes part of the Atlantic, Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals and the inland rivers of America's heartland. Due to illness, he’ll be unable to finish the boat or to make the journey. As a tribute to their love and respect for the man, his life-long friends, Greg Lalonde and Larry Murphy have vowed to both finish the boat and take it on the Great Loop.
“He’s really an amazing man,” LaLonde said. “There’s no plans for any of the boats he’s built. All the plans for all the boats come from his head. They come from his imagination into reality.”