“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.
This Old Boat – Part I
I have a confession to make. I have a thing for boats. To be specific, old wooden boats. But, not just any old wooden boats. I love lapstrake, planked, and old plywood boats. When I was a kid, Lobster Cove in Annisquam was loaded full of wooden boats of one kind or another – Amesbury skiffs, Banks dories, plywood work boats, and many others. Some were basic tenders used by lobstermen to travel from the dock to their boats. Others were expertly-crafted boats with varnished oak rails and hand planed and fitted planks. These were traditional boats whose original lines are rooted in the fishing industry of New England and the Canadian maritimes. Each one unique but amazingly rugged and well suited to the purpose for which they were built.
As a boy, I would walk down my parent’s hill and across the main road to Ye Olde Snug Harbor, which was a small summer resort of cottages right on Lobster Cove. The caretaker, Ms. Hubbard had several 14′ Amesbury skiffs tied to the dock there in the spring and summer. When guests were not staying at the cottages, she would let me fish from the dock, and on occasion, take one of the skiffs for a short ride around the cove. This was pure bliss. The smell of 2-cycle engine oil and gas, the hum of an old 10 horse Johnson, and the aroma of old pine boards soaked in salt water seemed to bring that old boat to life. I loved to look back and see the wake spreading out across the quiet cove in slow, even ripples. Those were fun days that I will always remember.
Fast forward to the present day – about 5-6 years ago I got the bug to own or build my own wooden boat. A friend and hunting partner built a Banks dory with his dad about 25 years ago and was interested in selling it. I remember the first time I saw Lou in his dory. We were hunting eider on the ledges in Beverly/Salem Harbor one morning, and Lou had agreed to meet us out there at sunrise. We were set up and the sun was just breaking over the horizon as I noticed a dark gray boat approaching us from Marblehead. It was Lou, and he was standing in the front of the boat steering it with ropes and pulleys that were attached to the main rudder. It was something to watch him pull that dory up into the shallows of the reef with expert precision, honed over decades of hunting and fishing in the boat that he made. I was hooked, and I offered to buy Lou’s dory from him on the spot.
For the last 2-3 years of its life, Lou’s dory sat in a slip not far from the sailing ship, Friendship of Salem. When I took ownership of the boat, it was in fairly rough shape and in dire need of some TLC. I brought the boat home and left it in my yard to dry out over the course of the summer. Before I could strip, paint, or replace any planks – the boat would need to dry out and shed some of its water weight. The boat was basically pickled from sitting in salt water for many years.
Getting the old paint off was not an issue. I was able to strip most of it with a Sandvik scraper and heat gun. What I found underneath the paint would become a BIG issue. Both gar boards had been severely chewed by bore weevils and there was significant rot damage just about everywhere. The transom was rotted from top to bottom and I was able to push a flat paint scraper through the middle of the oak tombstone. There was a chunk of rot in the bow knee about the length of my forearm and as thick as a deck of cards. I had my work cut out for me. Not a good situation.
Below are some photos of the old boat about half way through the process of stripping paint. It seemed that the more paint I removed, the more problem areas I discovered. Weevils and rot had done a number on the old pine boards.
Despite its problems, the boat was still amazing to look at. It had a large oak rudder that hung from the transom, which could be maneuvered with ropes and pulleys or a hand made ash handle. I still have the handle and hope to use it for my next boat project. The oak rails were still in decent shape, but were well worn from years of being tied up and tendered at the dock. Lou also made fore and aft storage compartments that had a carefully-crafted and fitted middle plank that could be lifted up to stow an anchor and chain, battery, or other gear. Unlike other traditional dories, this one had a motor well located just past the midsection of the boat, which was large enough to accept a 10 horsepower engine. I am sure that engine came in handy on those cold, blustery mornings when rowing into the teeth of a stiff gale was just too painful. But, on calmer days when the seas were mild, the boat could be rowed with ease.
Over the course of the next four to six weeks, it became apparent that this old dory was beyond my level of expertise to repair. The boat would require an experienced boatwright to fix the myriad of problems that I was finding every time I removed a layer of paint. It was disappointing to see this once regal boat with simple and beautiful lines reduced to a shadow of its former glory. I really had no choice but to give up the old boat as it would be too expensive and time consuming to fix on my own.
A friend and furniture maker was interested in the boat and took it off my hands. He was able to patch the boat up to get it mostly seaworthy. After a coat of primer and some marine paint, the boat was back in the water in Lanes Cove where it was used for one or two more years. It leaked and took on water as the old planks and floor boards were in rough shape, but it still looked beautiful on the water. I was sad to give her up.
Here are some other photos of the dory in the water at Lanes Cove: Dory 1, Dory 2, Dory 3. Stay tuned for the second part of this story. My quest for an old, but not too old, wooden boat would continue. I was lucky enough to find another dory not too far from home that had some rich boat building history attached to it. But, that’s a story for another time!