Man relives history with detailed models of boats

Reba Lean
Dennis "Pat" Carroll, 81, a Coast Guard veteran who served in Vietnam, talks about his ship models in his Ester cabin in June, 2012. Carroll builds the custom scale models in his home, where he displays his latest project, the HMS Pandora.
ERIC ENGMAN / Associated Press via Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

FAIRBANKS -- The walls are lined with varying sizes of miniature tools -- screwdrivers, pliers, protractors and drill bits. Pictures of the old U.S. Coast Guard cutter Maple hang in plastic sleeves. Pieces of wood and parts for ship models are scattered about the small workshop in Dennis "Pat" Carroll's home.

Carroll has lived in his cabin off Eva Creek Road in Ester since 1968, when he built it.

The "old bachelor pad," as he refers to it, serves as a place to create the intricate pieces of art he's loved since he was a boy. At 81 years old, Carroll just completed his most recent creation: a handmade scale model of His Majesty's Ship Pandora.

It's not just the building -- the nooks and crannies of each model -- that interests him; it's also the history behind each ship. And the models are more than just trinkets -- they are art.

"They're not toys," Carroll explained. "I take it serious. It's my pride."

Carroll was born in Watertown, N.Y., and raised in Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario. He grew up with his mother and grandparents on his grandfather's farm.

He remembers being 8 or 9 years old, whittling away at pieces of wood late at night in his room. His mother's words still ring in his mind.

"Turn that light out and go to bed," she'd say.

A U.S. Coast Guard station in Sackets Harbor caught Carroll's imagination as a youth. He knew his future didn't lie in farming.

"The day I was 17, I kissed those cows goodbye," he said. "My grandfather was a steamboat captain back in the '20s and that's probably where I got it, because it all came natural to me. Navigation and all that, it just seemed to come. I made my rates very easily and, like I say, cows and I didn't get along. I went right to sea."

He spent about 20 years in the Coast Guard, counting icebergs in the Atlantic Ocean, patrolling harbors for drug shipments and tending buoys. He was stationed aboard the Maple for a number of years.

"Every ship I was ever on, I'd find a corner and go to town" on whittling a ship out of a block of wood, he said.

He moved to Alaska when he left the Coast Guard in the mid-1960s. He came to "get away from the madness" and work on the proposed Rampart Dam, which was never built. He ended up working for Wien Air Alaska for a number of years, exploring the small towns and landscapes of Alaska.

Old shipmates from the Coast Guard kept in touch by letter. They urged him to come fight in Vietnam.

"Come on, we'll go to 'Nam," he remembers them saying. "Like World War II, we'll settle this. We'll get it over with."

He was persuaded to go.

A reminder of the war sits in the corner of his dining room. Inside a glass display case lies a model of a World War II Mike boat, many of which were deployed during the Vietnam War. He captained one.

"I lost that boat in 'Nam -- had it blown out from under me," he said. "That one I don't sell. There was six of us on there, and two of us made it."

Carroll returned to Fairbanks after two more years with the Coast Guard.

He worked for the Arctic Health Research Center, on the pipeline and on a hangar at Fort Wainwright. He struggled throughout those years, remembering the war. Though he said he drank, he never turned to drugs as an answer. Not even when he was prescribed antidepressants.

Instead, he spent a few years out in the woods.

"I enjoy it -- I love animals, I love the outdoors," he said. "But I found out I wasn't a hermit, so I came back."

Since then, word of Carroll's model-making talents have spread around the country. Requests for his artwork stretch coast to coast.

In Fairbanks, many people own his work. The City of Fairbanks purchased a 94-inch replica of the sternwheeler Nenana. Hometown Restaurant in South Fairbanks owns a gold dredge model.

A finished product of Carroll's takes time. He spent 1,346 hours constructing the Nenana. He has spent 3,148 hours on the Pandora, in part because of a couple of years of problems with his eyesight and tremors.

Carroll orders parts and has them shipped them to Fairbanks.

For the Pandora, Carroll crafted the ship's hull out of tiny planks. He steamed the planks above a boiling teakettle and bent them, hoping they wouldn't snap. The ship also has miniature masts, ropes, pulleys, cannon and a figurehead.

"I go through thousands of razors," he said. The razor is his favorite tool for making the precise cuts the scale models require.

He covers each carefully crafted ship with a hand-built case. He's specific about how to care for the ship when he hands it over to buyers -- people can't stack things on top of it, nor have their pets scratch it up.

"I only sell to people who appreciate them, if they're nautical," he said. "A lot of people don't know (what goes into sailing). They figure, well, you pull out the sail and you go. Being a sailor, it wasn't that way. Being on a ship was hard, it was tough ... Those buoy tenders were all work."

Carroll values hard work and tends to convey that in his creations.

"When you get it all done, it's like a piece of art or piano," he said. "Excluding fire and theft, you have something for life."

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner