Is That What I Think It Is?
Whenever William Terra takes his boat to Pushaw Lake in Maine, that's when the questions begin.
The first question is always 'Did you build that?' and depending on my mood when I'm asked, I can answer 'Yes' or say something like 'No, Sears had it on sale last week.'" You see, behind William Terra's pickup truck is a 30-foot replica of the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee that he pulls on a trailer to lakes just north of Bangor.
Terra, a retired New York City fireman, and the Admiral Graf Spee have spent a lot of time together. It began more than 40 years ago when someone gave him a four-inch-long model of the fabled German battleship that sank numerous British ships during World War II. It was during the 1939 Battle of the River Plate in South America when the captain scuttled the ship outside the Montevideo, Uruguay harbor rather than be captured by Allied forces. While docked at Montevideo, the captain released British prisoners, buried German crewmembers killed in the battle, and was well aware the damaged ship lacked enough fuel or ammunition to take on the ships just offshore. That's why he chose to blow it up. The ship was one of the first to be constructed without rivets, making it lighter, so it carried larger guns and, unlike all other battleships, its eight engines used diesel fuel.
The story, and the design, traveled with Terra to Maine where he retired on 100 acres of land purchased decades earlier. As a new life began for him and his wife, that old fascination with the Admiral Graf Spee remained. He had access to the Internet and a workshop, and that's all he needed. "It has a tremendous history and I started doing research, finding photos of the ship, and then I found a guy in California who had built a hull so I bought it," Terra recalls. "I spoke with relatives of crewmembers who had served on the USS Helena, and who photographed the battleship before it sank." He knew his next step: build a larger model.
His plan was to construct a battleship he could really get into. Literally. This wasn't going to be a model kept in the living room as a conversation piece; it was going to be something he could take out on nearby lakes and go for a boat ride, with room for a passenger.
So he went to work on what became a six-year project. The hull was made with strips of basswood. After that, things became more complicated. "The decking is made from an old wooden Venetian blind that I had. I cut the wood to the proper length and width and caulked between the pieces and I've had people tell me that deck looks like the ones they walked on when they were on a battleship. Everything on board is made from scratch. The crew were purchased from a train set and each has a helmet that closely resembles the ones worn by the Germans during that time. The turrets were made on my wood lathe and coated with fiberglass, I have a steel keel, and there's 12 layers of fiberglass over the basswood strips on the hull. People tell me I tend to overdo things. But I'll tell you this: I've been out in four-foot waves and the boat has a great center of gravity."
At the launch ramp, Terra eases into the Admiral Graf Spee just behind the coming tower. There he fires up a five-horsepower outboard and heads into the water with Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" playing on an onboard stereo system. Along the way, other boats cruise in for a closer look, not believing what they're seeing. "I hear a lot of folks yelling that it's a real battleship," Terra says, adding, "I've lived a life where a lot of folks used to give me the middle finger. When I'm on the water in the boat or stopped at a stoplight, now I get a thumbs-up."
At age 73, William Terra says the boat rides are becoming fewer and fewer. "It's still pretty easy to get into, but arthritis makes it harder and harder to get out. Still, I feel lucky if I can maintain the windows in my house at this age." Don't believe a word of what he says. Outside is a half-mile runway which he still uses to fly his airplane (he was a charter pilot for a while so it should be noted this is a real airplane, not a model). The boat has become a hit on the Internet and Terra has received notes from fans all over the world, asking questions about the construction, from teachers asking for stories about the ship they can use in their classes, and from relatives of crewmembers who have stories they recall being told and hope to pass on to others.
The Admiral Graf Spee is still seen now and then at a traffic light at an intersection in Maine. And if you're inclined to ask the guy in the truck about you-know-what, remember this: Sears never had it on sale.
This article was published in the February 2011 issue of Trailering Magazine.