Soundings - - Contents - By Gary Re­ich

The Hooper Is­land drake­tail’s el­e­gant re­verse stern sets it apart from other Ch­e­sa­peake work­boats.

It’s 5 o’clock one cool, misty Septem­ber morn­ing on Crab Al­ley Creek. The fog is so thick we have to feel our way up­stream in our weather- beaten skiff, us­ing the sound from the can­tan­ker­ous out­board bounc­ing off the shore­line.

When the sun be­gins to burn through, my fa­ther and I start lay­ing down our 1,000-foot, eel­baited trot­line along a drop-off in the creek bed, hop­ing some crabs will be feed­ing along it. As we fin­ish, the translu­cent out­line of a work­boat glides by in the fog. Once she’s astern of us, an ar­bi­trary beam of sun­light breaks through the haze, il­lu­mi­nat­ing her el­e­gant re­verse stern.

That stern is one of the most beau­ti­ful de­sign el­e­ments I’ve ever seen on a boat. What we saw that morn­ing was a Hooper Is­land dove­tail, more widely known as a drake­tail. It’s a de­sign unique to the Dorch­ester County/ Hooper Is­land area of Ch­e­sa­peake Bay. Long, lean and grace­ful, these boats have a strik­ing re­verse stern that sets them apart from most hard­edged dead­rise work­ing craft on the Bay. The de­sign cue is so stun­ning that modern builders have repli­cated it in a hand­ful of cruis­ing power­boats over the years.

When I found out that the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Mar­itime Mu­seum in St. Michaels, Mary­land, was build­ing one from scratch, I had to stop by for a closer look.

Sail, Steam and Naph­tha

Be­fore the ad­vent of the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine, most Ch­e­sa­peake Bay work­boat de­signs were in­flu­enced by their modes of propul­sion. Since both sail- and steam-en­gine-driven hulls had to be slip­pery and ef­fi­cient — sail­ing ves­sels for ob­vi­ous rea­sons and be­cause of the rel­a­tively low horse­power of smaller steam en­gines — they of­ten had a healthy dose of dugout ca­noe in their DNA. Dugout ca­noes were the ef­fi­cient hull shapes Na­tive Amer­i­cans used to ply the Bay for oys­ters, clams, fish and crabs. Euro­pean set­tlers even­tu­ally adapted the ca­noe de­signs and build­ing tech­niques for their own work­boats.

Around the turn of the last cen­tury, small in­ter­nal-com­bus­tion en­gines that ran on naph­tha be­gan to show up in boats. This al­lowed boat­builders to toy with new de­signs. “When wa­ter­men no longer needed to rely on sails or boats with steam en­gines — us­ing small, naph­tha­fu­eled en­gines in­stead — the de­sign phi­los­o­phy tilted on its axis a bit,” says Pete Lesher, chief cu­ra­tor of Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Mar­itime Mu­seum. “The Hooper Is­land drake­tail was de­vel­oped for trotlin­ing for crabs and hand-tong­ing for oys­ters. Since the naph­tha and gaso­line en­gines were still rel­a­tively lack­lus­ter in the power depart­ment, the drake­tail de­sign was con­ceived with ef­fi­ciency in mind. That led to the long, slen­der pro­file. The re­verse stern and nar­row beam are cues taken from Navy tor­pedo boat and power­boat rac­ing de­signs. The re­verse

stern adds ad­di­tional buoy­ancy aft, and it length­ens the wa­ter­line.”

Hun­dreds of the boats were built in the Hooper Is­land area for crab­bing and oys­ter­ing wa­ter­men, and a hand­ful were con­structed on Broomes Is­land, al­most di­rectly across the Bay on the Patux­ent River. “I’ve tried to specif­i­cally nail down how many sur­vive to­day, but that turned out to be a dif­fi­cult task,” Lesher says. “The best num­ber I can give to­day is that 10 to 20 of them sur­vive. As en­gines got big­ger and more pow­er­ful, so did the work­boats they pow­ered.”

Build­ing Pin­tail

Across the mu­seum cam­pus from Lesher’s of­fice, Jenn Kuhn is in the mu­seum’s rick­ety­look­ing but warm and pic­turesque boat shop. She’s run­ning her hands along the ma­hogany toe rail of Pin­tail, the Hooper Is­land- style drake­tail she’s build­ing with the help of vol­un­teer mu­seum mem­bers.

Kuhn is an­i­mated and spunky, with a slight rasp to her voice that gives her a rugged qual­ity. Her grace­ful-look­ing yet weath­ered hands show the toll that a love of restor- ing and build­ing wooden boats takes. Head of the mu­seum’s “Ap­pren­tice for a Day” pro­gram, Kuhn en­lists the help of vol­un­teers who pay a small fee to learn the ropes of boat­build­ing. Once the boats are com­pleted, they’re sold. Pro­ceeds ben­e­fit the mu­seum.

Work on Pin­tail be­gan in Jan­uary 2016. She’s framed in white oak with At­lantic white cedar plank­ing and sas­safras deck­ing. Bright­work, in­clud­ing the toe rail and cer­tain in­te­rior ac­cou­ter­ments, are ma­hogany.

Pin­tail was built up­side-down on a strong­back — a jig of sorts that her fram­ing and plank­ing were built around to help form her hull shape. Once the hull plank­ing and fram­ing were com­plete, Pin­tail was flipped up­right, and the es­sen­tial com­po­nents of the strong­back were re­moved.

Next, work on her deck and other struc­tures be­gan. “Tra­di­tion­ally many of these boats were built by first bury­ing the stem and stern post firmly in the ground be­fore a long keel­son was fas­tened be­tween them,” Lesher says. “Af­ter that, ribs, other fram­ing and then planks were added be­fore the struc­ture was rolled over.”

Brush­ing aside the boat shop cat and mu­seum mas­cot, Edna Sprit, who’s climb­ing on the fore­deck, Kuhn says, “Pin­tail mea­sures out at 25 feet long with a 4-foot-2-inch beam. She draws just 18 inches.”

Push­ing Pin­tail along will be a sin­gle­cylin­der, 14- hp Yan­mar diesel mated to a tra­di­tional stain­less- steel shaft and prop. “We chose stick steer­ing for Pin­tail,” Kuhn says. “It’s just like many of the orig­i­nals had, mak­ing it easy for a sin­gle­handed skip­per to work his trot­line, net­ting crabs with one hand and eas­ily steer­ing with the other by sim­ply nudg­ing a stick.”

Pin­tail should be com­pleted by late spring or early sum­mer. Kuhn and her vol­un­teers plan to fin­ish the top­sides in clas­sic white paint, and she’ll have a few coats of red bot­tom paint to pro­vide con­trast. Pin­tail will be a bit more pret­tied up than her pre­de­ces­sors, and she’ll look great on the wa­ter.

The best part? She’ll be of­fered for sale at $32,000. Were my dad still alive, I’d buy her so we could go crab­bing again. Then we’d be the ones draw­ing all the at­ten­tion on Crab Al­ley Creek in the morn­ing fog.

Jenn Kuhn is build­ing Pin­tail, a Hooper Is­land-style drake­tail, with the help of vol­un­teers at Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Mar­itime Mu­seum.

Martha is a clas­sic 43-foot Hooper Is­land drake­tail.

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