Inheriting a love of the water
How my father became interested in building wooden boats is a matter of conjecture. Our home city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, saw many steam-powered riverboats over the centuries but had no small watercraft heritage, nor was it a mecca for water sports.
The answer may lie in my grandfather’s roots in tidewater Maryland. Owen S. Cecil
Sr. grew up close to Annapolis and knew the upper Chesapeake Bay well. When he left for Pittsburgh around 1900 to be a lawyer, the soggy imprint of the bay went with him.
In his youth my father, Owen Jr., became a skilled wood- and metalworker. Grandfather had converted the porch into a workshop where Dad built everything from miniature steam engines to award-winning model airplanes. So few were surprised in 1934 when Dad designed and built a hydroplane runabout as his thesis project at the University of Pittsburgh’s engineering school. He was courting my mother at the time; she photographed his trials of Sea Mule on the Allegheny River.
By 1940 my father had built a wooden rowing and sailing pram that he and Mother carted atop their old Ford to lakes and rivers around Pennsylvania and New York. My sister Carole got her first rowing lesson in that boat on Chautauqua Lake in the summer of ’42.
Dad then started work on a cabin cruiser for family vacations on Georgian Bay in Ontario, but he never finished it. Everything, including boats and family recreation, changed after World War II. He took up fishing in a serious way and realized that he could more easily reach remote Canadian lakes, where the fishing was better, with a lightweight
17-foot aluminum canoe than with his heavier homemade vessels. The family passion for wooden boats seemed to have passed.
But in 1980 I took a seminar near Camden, Maine, on wooden boatbuilding. Two weeks of prowling around Down East harbors and boat shops ignited my interest in small crafts. Shortly after, I moved to the Great Lakes area, and so began my 25-year occupation writing about the region’s historic watercraft.
It took about a century for my family’s watery heritage to drift from Chesapeake Bay to the Michigan shores of Lake Huron. It must have been the sound of waves slurping against the hull of a wooden boat that kept the tradition alive.