Sails Away: Ship Model Society Recreates History

John McElwee of Syosset with his model of a 2,000 year-old fishing boat. (Photo by Chris Boyle)

The Long Island Ship Model Society has been around since 1966 and works diligently to preserve an art form that, for many these days, has really fallen by the wayside—the construction of highly detailed, historically accurate and incredibly complex model ships that can often take years to complete.

John McElwee of Syosset serves at the group’s meeting coordinator and said that the Model Society is basically, just a group of guys who enjoy what they do, as well as helping each other whenever they can.
“This is a very casual club. The way it works is that we bring our ships down to the meetings and if something is a work-in-progress, we all help each other out. If someone is stuck, or they need a suggestion or make a mistake, they can count on their fellow members to offer critiques and assistance to help them overcome it,” he said. “We really enjoy trying to create something from history and getting together and sharing ideas. Everyone here has their own way of doing things, so when we get together there’s a great sense of teamwork and mutual assistance.”
The group meets monthly at the Syosset Public Library, typically on the last Thursday of each month. Anyone interested in attending should check the library’s website for their event calendar to confirm the exact date.
“The library has been very accommodating to us,” McElwee said. “We really appreciate it and very much enjoy holding our meetings here.”
The complexity of some of the ship models is utterly breathtaking, with the majority of them made from scratch by hand. Sometimes commercial model kits are used as a base, McElwee said, but usually the members of the club discard many of the stock parts and, through both creativity and necessity, devise their own.
Ships_070616C“Most of these models are made from kits that have been heavily modified,” he said. “First, we do as much research as we can through books and the Internet to keep the ships as true to their original period and design as possible, to the point that our models are usually museum-quality. It’s like taking a snapshot of history.”
McElwee himself had a model on display of a 2,000-year-old fishing boat that was discovered sunken and preserved in the mud of Israel. He used extensive research and blueprints to make it as close to its original condition as possible.
The society’s membership has lagged slightly in recent years, but the current head count in the group is 15 members. However, McElwee was quick to point out that they’re always looking for new additions to their ranks and that they eagerly welcome people of any age who are even the slightest bit curious about what the club does. Anyone is welcome to come on down and check out the Model Society, ask questions and participate however they like.
Neil Gillon of Freeport made a replica of the great explorer Henry Hudson’s fabled ship, The Half Moon, a boat the famous explorer used for more than 20 voyages. This labor of love took Gillon five-and-a-half years to complete, working at least four nights a week for several hours each night after his wife and son had gone to bed.
“I always wanted to build a model ship myself after seeing them in the museums as a kid. I joined the club and I bought the model kit I used as a base for the The Half Moon, and then I threw everything out except the hull and built off of that,” he said. “I did research and conversed with my fellow members and everything on that ship—from the rigging to the individual planks on the deck—I did from scratch by hand and it exactly matches the construction of the original vessel from the 1600s. If you apply yourself, nothing about this is really that hard. It’s just time consuming.”
Ships_070616DSyosset resident Gunther Benkart’s model of the famed Flying Cloud, a ship that set the world’s sailing record for the fastest trip between New York and San Francisco, took him two years to complete.
“I started doing the model making when I retired and I was looking for something to do. I really enjoy the woodworking and most of all, I really just enjoy working with my hands,” he said. “You’re building the model like you would a real ship—just a lot smaller, obviously. When you’re constructing the hull, you have to actually steam the wood just as you would on a real ship, to bend it to go around the stern. But the hardest part is doing the rigging on this particular model, all the little strings that go from the various masts and sails. But it’s very satisfying to look at your finished product and know that you made that yourself with your own two hands.”
Those looking for more information on the Long Island Ship Model Society can email John McElwee at

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Chris Boyle is a reporter with Anton Media Group.

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