Gary Saindon endured a winter of cancer and surgery the same way he constructs his model ships: with patience and determination. During this time, he knew that keeping the right mindset would be essential.
”That’s part of life: a lot of frustrations,” he said of both his cancer and ship-building. “I’ve found the importance of division helping me through this. This is the best therapy I have.”
The Billings resident developed this therapy of constructing models of historical sailing ships with his most recent and ambitious project, The USS Constitution, taking 920 hours to complete. Since he discovered the hobby in 1957, Saindon was immediately hooked by the amount of care, focus and attention to detail that the process required. He has since progressed to more elaborate models throughout his life. Now 78 years old, he has shown no signs of slowing his work down.
Working various jobs including carpentry, construction and maintenance over the years, keeping a steady hand has never been a problem for Saindon. He has always found the work to be challenging and engaging rather than dull and frustrating. An avid fan of history, he also engages in learning the background behind each ship that he begins work on.
“That’s part of the fun,” he said. “Learning about the history behind each of the ships and why exactly the details are there.”
Once he learns the purpose behind each ship, he proceeds to include the details of the ship that the model kit overlooks. If a ship had a copper hull, his model has a copper hull. If it was rigged with ratline ropes, then his models are rigged with 1/16” ratline strings.
The amount of detail and extra work has never stopped Saindon from making his models historically accurate. For the USS Constitution, he wound up tying 3,000 of his own ratline knots once he learned that the actual ship had that many. For accurate exteriors of the ships, he learned how to stain their bronze plating and bend the wood to shape them through a process of soaking and steaming.
Over the years, he has completed model replicas of the HMS Bounty, USS Rattlesnake, San Juan Capistrano and USS Constitution. These are currently on display at the hobby shop Central Hobbies in Billings. He has also kept a detailed diary of all his work including the part worked on, the date it was worked on and how long it took him that day.
The ships on display are the result of a friendship with Central Hobbies Owner Al Coomber. Their relationship began from a process of bartering completed ships for new models that they still engage in today. Coomber has seen many models from many people, but attests that Saindon is in a class of his own.
“I’ve been to a lot of museums with their own recreations of these ships,” he said. “And I can say that, in many ways, Gary’s pieces rival if not surpass them in terms of quality and detail.”
What had always been just a passionate hobby would become much more meaningful for Saindon when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during the winter of 2015. Though he avoided chemotherapy, his treatment was long and complicated with unrelated health problems.
After going in and out of the emergency room ten times, he was informed by doctors he had four bleeding ulcers in addition to the cancer.
“That was a long winter,” he sighed. “The ulcers were just a little bonus.”
The only option was a 10-hour Whipple procedure that removed portions of his pancreas, gallbladder and stomach. The surgery successfully removed the cancer but resulted in installing a pacemaker and reduced functions from many of his internal organs.
Overhearing the recollection of his hospital time, his wife Jayne interjected from the other room with how she recalls it. “You handled it like you handle everything else… fine. This man never complains.”
Almost four years later, Saindon hasn’t let his physical setbacks slow him down. Now retired, he remains active by keeping up with house work, tending his garden and mowing his lawn in addition to working on new ships.
After the completion of the Constitution this past May, Saindon thought that his work on model ships was finally done. It didn’t take long, however, to find a new project from Coomber when giving him the ship.
He has since begun working on the USS Syren, which he described as a warship that was built in Philadelphia during the 1880s.
From his days in high school to his cancer bout and subsequent recovery, Saindon's hobby keeps him happy and busy all these years later.