Boat building is still alive and well
Boat builders carry on the craft in Philadelphia and St. Michaels, Md.
There are two types of people, those who prefer sailboats and those who would rather ride on a motor boat.
The romance of sailing intrigues me. I enjoy embracing the power of the wind and the feel, when the wind is strong, of going fast. It’s all about the breeze.
I enjoyed recent excursions to two places where everyone I talked to prefers sails over motors. I visited the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland and the Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia.
Both museums encourage visitors to interact with, and watch, as craftsmen work with wooden boats.
Both museums are located on water. The St. Michaels museum is on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the Philadelphia museum sits on the Delaware River.
As part of an introduction to a pamphlet, “The Edna E. Lockwood,” by Charles H. Kepner, R.J. Holt wrote: “Historically, the boat has been among the finest examples of man’s ingenuity and skill in constructing a functional implement of beauty and efficiency.”
These museums strive to bring boats back to “ship shape” and the final products are indeed beautiful and functional.
Mark Donohue, director of ‘workshop on the water’ for the Seaport Museum, said that water-testing a new or reconditioned boat is exciting.
“It’s always nice when you launch a boat for the first time and it floats,” he said. “You just don’t know until you put it in the water.”
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is rebuilding the queen of its fleet, the 54-foot Edna E. Lockwood. You can watch the ongoing project to restore the hull, while asking the workers questions.
The old oyster boat or “Bugeye” has two masts and three sails. During the winters of 1889 through 1967, it worked the oyster beds of the Chesapeake Bay. It was later used as a family boat and then donated to the museum in 1974.
Richard Scofield, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum assistant curator for watercraft, said staffers searched for two years for the just right yellow pine logs weighing 15,000 to 20,000 pounds each. They found the perfect loblolly yellow pine logs in Machipongo, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
The Edna E. Lockwood is a National Historic Landmark and as such the St. Michaels museum’s obligation is to keep the boat authentic.
The craft was originally built with no written plans, or simply by eye. Now computers and 3-D technology guide the workers.
Log keels are built with an odd number of logs — one for the very bottom and an even number on each side.
The original logs on the Edna E. Lockwood are not even, with an extra four-and-a-half-inch difference from side to side. True to the original “plans,” that oddity will be preserved in the new boat.
“Hopefully it matches together,” Scofield said with a smile.
Scofield said that slow-growth pine allows the rings of the trees to grow tighter, keeping the rings closer together.
Those logs spent much of the winter, floating in the bay, to keep the wood moist and healthier and to avoid a possible onslaught of fungus.
The day I visited St. Michaels, workers were using both power tools and old-fashioned methods.
Saw dust flew from a chainsaw on a 55-footlong pine log. Forty feet away, an axe was used to hand-shape the hull.
In Philadelphia, we watched a skilled blacksmith bend metal with a blowtorch.
Museumgoers aren’t the only ones to get an education and learn about boat construction. School students from both Philadelphia and St. Michaels build boats from scratch.
The Seaport Museum supports the Sailor Program for middle and high school students. Full boat construction from start to finish coincides with the school year.
The finished product becomes part of the fleet and is christened with sparkling cider by the students. They even get to name it.
Through an apprentice program, Scofield and the team teach young boat building school graduates more about the craft. Scofield said apprentices learn through hands-on experience at what he referred to as “kind of a graduation school.”
Several boat builders at the Seaport Museum told me that they’d learned and worked in St. Michaels. Scofield said that 46 former apprentices work all over the country.
“The guys who taught me are gone,” Scofield said. “If I don’t teach, then these skills are gone. It’s selfish on my part, but we’ve got to think about the next boat builders.
“Generally, after a year of boat building school, they know how to, but don’t necessarily have the skills. We pay them a little bit of money and we work them to death.”
Seasonally, you can ride boats at both museums.
St .Michaels feels like a mini-Mystic Seaport. There are lots of buildings with a variety of excellent exhibits. You can see old duck decoys and huge guns, tour a lighthouse, eat a soft crab sandwich and even pull up a working crab trap from the bay.
At the more conventional museum at Penn’s Landing, visitors learn all about the water, science, history, art, community and the Philadelphia region’s waterways.
There’s much to be learned and seen at both museums. And, you might even get to ride in a boat.
For more information on the Seaport Museum call 215-413-8655, or go to www.phillyseaport.org.
To learn about a visit to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum call 410745-2916, or go to www. cbmm.org.
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Assistant Curator Richard Scofield poses in front of a lighthouse, just one of the many spectacular sites in St. Michaels, Md.
Using both old and new techniques, a blacksmith works with a blowtorch on wooden boats at the Seaport Museum on the Delaware River at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia.