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Greg McKay and the Great Republic

Greg McKay with his model of The Great Republic

Model ship by Greg McKay

McKay’s model ships show intricate detail from bow to stern

A shipbuilder in the desert

—KEIKO OHNUMA

Greg McKay runs the largest shipbuilding business in the Albuquerque area, right at home in Placitas. But don’t drive by his house hoping to spy among the sagebrush one of the half-dozen yachts, tankers, tugboats, and oil-drilling rigs he completes each year.

McKay’s boats fit neatly within his garage workshop, where they float in various states of completion, from a simple wooden hull to The Great Republic, a 1854 Clipper ship that sits docked in New York harbor—McKay made the harbor too, with its buildings, tiny porcelain crowds, and cast-resin ocean that offers a glimpse of the mighty ship’s hull from underneath.

Make no mistake: McKay’s ships are the real thing. Every plank and beam is cut according to the original plan, which in some cases is an historic document. “That’s the only way to make them look real,” says the former field supervisor for a uranium company. Trained as a painter, McKay is known among museum curators for the verisimilitude of his maritime dioramas.

“I’ve always gone for extreme detail,” he says. Adding the backdrops and ocean waves tells a story, he notes, putting the ships in context. “It’s always got water, so it’s moving.” One of his pet projects, a cutaway view of the Coast Guard cutter Snohomish, boggles the mind with its tiny details: You see the sailors below decks, their bunks outfitted with tiny pillows and sheets, a room full of coiled ropes, and piles of real coal in front of the giant boilers.

Model makers do not generally go to such great lengths. And once he built his first model from scratch, McKay knew the work was going to be more than a hobby. Someone, he reasoned, must be making a living creating the models that shipbuilders use for reference and sales. So he had fliers printed up and sent to every shipyard on the west coast, offering his services.

“Within a month, I had all the work I wanted,” he says. Eventually McKay would be supplying models for all of them.

His was the right idea at the right time: “There’s a big demand, and no one is doing it anymore,” he says. Most model builders are in their sixties, and young people are hardly drawn to the painstaking labor. Yet clients ranging from the U.S. military (McKay is the Pentagon’s official ship modeler) to commercial shipbuilders, maritime museums, and private yacht owners have kept him busy for thirty-six years, with a backlog of orders five years long.

It wasn’t only luck that lifted McKay’s boats above the others. Hobbyists build vessels by the thousands, “but they don’t want to do it as a living,” he says. “They don’t want to spend a thousand hours on a project,” or they’ll take three to four years to finish one, and be done with it.

As a profession, model building is time-consuming and terribly slow—though one cannot afford to be too slow, of course. “You have to be a wood carver, a painter, a metal worker, and an artist,” McKay says, in addition to knowing about the ships and researching their history—but not taking too long to do it. It’s the constant learning and variety that keep him engaged full-time, seven to eight hours a day, six days a week. Most projects take him the better part of a year to complete, working on several at a time.

“Everyone wants immediate gratification, and this is not the way to get it,” McKay says firmly. Indeed, in the world of model ship building, he is told that he works lightning-fast.

Raised in Santa Fe in the 1950s, McKay could never make sense of his sudden aptitude for an arcane profession that is completely out of place in the desert. He commented on this to his mother in her final days, some years ago.

“You should have asked me!” she said. Little did he know that he hailed from a long line of shipbuilders. His father’s family built ships in the 1850s, and his mother’s family emigrated from Holland to start a ship company in Connecticut in the 1700s. “It was in my blood,” he marveled.

But how could he know? His father was an aviation mechanic, his mother a pilot, and his brother was in the Air Force.

“I could build planes,” he says apologetically—if not for that five-year backlog of ships. That, and the fact that he grows excited narrating the history of tugboats in the North Sea, testify to the ocean water running in his veins.

“I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment,” McKay says of his work. After thirty-six years of building models, he has the tough problems behind him, so the work just “flows together.” He makes a decent living working for himself, “doing exactly what I want to do” at home in Placitas.

And that should float anybody’s boat, even in the desert.


William Henry Dvorachek, Jr.

William Henry Dvorachek, Jr. with one of his many beloved dogs

Placitas scientist, Dvorachek,missed by many

William Henry Dvorachek, Jr. of Placitas died on February 11. He was born in Washington, DC on March 19, 1943 to William Henry Dvorachek and Helen Bunten Dvorachek of Vienna, Virginia. He graduated from Fairfax High School in Fairfax, Virginia, where he played football, and was a member of the Episcopal Church all his life. He developed a strong love of the west by attending Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico while in high school, and he spent four summers during college in the Tetons and Glacier National Park working for the National Park Service. He received his BS in mathematics from the University of Virginia and his PhD in molecular biology from the University of New Mexico. He worked at UNM as a Research Associate in the field of molecular genetics until his death.

A true environmentalist, he enjoyed nature and hiking in the mountains with his dogs. He loved New Mexico, where he lived most of his adult life. He was devoted to his family and helped them in many ways. He had a great sense of humor, a strong intellectual curiosity, and loved to discuss current events and philosophy. He was a big fan of music, especially jazz and classical, and UNM Lobo basketball. He had high hopes for the future of this country and the world.

Survivors are his mother, three sisters, a brother, and many nieces and nephews. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him. A memorial service was held for him on February 23 at the Alumni Memorial Chapel at UNM in Albuquerque.

 

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