Since I have so much boat building in my DNA I thought it was about time I tried my own hand at building a wooden boat. My daughter asked me last spring, as she and her husband made plans to drive across the country with my newborn grandson, to think of some projects my son-in-law and I could do together while they spent the summer with us here on Cape Cod. My son-in-law wanted to learn more nautical skills, so immediately upon his arrival I organized a lifting party to lug one of the two Cotuit Skiffs out of the boatshed for a paint job and some repair work.
Alas, I opened up a significant crack in the lower starboard strake, just above the chine, where years of iron rot caused by the use of galvanized boat nails in the late 1940s finally caught up to the old boat and expressed itself as a total hull failure that is going to require some advanced shipwright skills to resolve. Rather than waste weeks trying to rout out the old rotten white Atlantic cedar and replace it with a new graving piece or chine log, I proposed our next project be the construction of a small wherry — a light rowboat often used to teach novice rowers how to row.
I looked at a variety of wherry designs, focusing on those with the lines of a Whitehall wherry, named after Manhattan’s Whitehall Street at the southern tip of the city, where watermen offered their services rowing freight or sailors to and from the ships moored in New York harbor. The Whitehall design is a classic — a plumb, or nearly vertical stem (bow) and a wineglass transom combine to make it one of the most admired small boat designs, and a model for countless build-at-home projects by builders such as myself.
I have long wanted a boat with a sliding seat for sculling around Cotuit Bay in all sorts of weather throughout the fall, winter and early spring months when a typical racing scull gets overpowered by wind and wave. So I focused my search for a Whitehall that could be fitted out for sliding seat rowing, looking for a boat that I could get down to the harbor myself — either on top of the car rack or carried overhead — launch, and row around the Cotuit-Osterville estuary. That meant I needed a design that was about 18-feet long and weighed under 50 lbs. Length is important because the sliding seat means the sculler’s body weight is rolling two to three feet on a seat set in two parallel tracks. As the sculler finishes a stroke their weight settles forward, towards the bow; and at the catch, (or start of the stroke) the weight shifts towards the stern, causing the boat to “hobby horse” and rock inefficiently from end to end. Longer boats track straighter, and hobby horse less, than a shorter boat, which is why you don’t see scullers trying to make a ten-foot pram go fast.
A new subscription to Small Boats magazine (companion to the venerable Woodenboat) introduced me to the Ruth Wherry, a design by Dave Gentry that hews to the Whitehall’s look but saves on weight by eschewing traditional riveted clinker planking for a stretched skin-on-frame construction method borrowed from Aleut kayak builders who covered their baidarkas with animal skin stretched and stitched over a wooden skeleton assembled from driftwood.. I ordered a set of digital plans from Gentry, had them printed out locally, and started sourcing the materials I would need to complete the project. It turns out that pandemic quarantines are excellent home improvement opportunities, and wood was initially an issue as one lumberyard after another on the Cape were cleared out of select lumber by the fourth of July. Apparently pressure treated lumber is in such short supply on Nantucket that some construction projects had to pause for a couple of weeks. Sourcing the hardware, paint, and various parts was generally an issue as more and more boatyards have closed their hardware shops under pressure from the Big Box villain of the marine industries, West Marine. The specific types of lumber and hardware used in wooden boat building are hard to find at the retail level, and much as I dislike giving my business to Amazon and West Marine, I was able to get a lot of the odds-and-ends from Jamestown Distributors in Rhode Island.
The frame of the boat is made from six frames cut from 1/2″ Okume marine plwood and 18-foot stringers cut from western red cedar. The plywood, while expensive, only required a half of a 8’x4′ sheet, and the red cedar took some hunting around to find as lumber is in extremely short supply due to the closure of some sawmills due to COVID-19, and a big spike in demand caused by people working from home and looking for DIY projects around the house. Eventually my local lumber yard, Botellos, got a new shipment of cedar and I spent an hour in their lumbershed sorting through stacks of ten-foot planks looking for a few that were straight, knot-free, and had their grain oriented vertically. Because the stringers on the Ruth run the full length of the hull, they needed to be cut from 20-foot planks and of course, planks that long are very hard to find, especially so-called “CVG” planks that are Clear of knots, Vertically-grained. Gentry wisely advises lumberyard noobs like myself to not ask the gang who work there for “CVG” or even to tell them the wood is intended for a boat. I walked right into a belly laugh from one amused lumberyardsman when I asked if he had a “piece of ash” which I needed to build some floor slats from.
To get the lumber length I needed, I needed to “scarf” two ten-foot planks together. This caused me anxiety and several hours watching YouTube how-to videos before I dared try it myself. But it worked out, and I cut a nice flat and even 10-to-1 bevel in one end of the two planks, and scarfed them together, by lining them, driving as staple through to keep them from slipping, and then epoxying the two together overnight in a sandwich of wax paper and some iron kettlebells.. Those planks were then ripped length-wise through a table saw to produce the keel, chines, gunwales and inwales. I soaked the bundle of nine long stringers in new blue tarp which was clamped tightly together, then and filled with water from a garden hose. After a day of soaking the stringers were laid across a pair of saw horses and bent into a gradual curve by hanging a five-gallon bucket of water from the middle. Yes, steaming planks is part of the shipwright tradition, but according to Gentry’s excellent construction manual, a little water and some weight accomplished the same result.
The boat was built on a “strongback” — a 12′ foot 2×4 screwed across two saw horses. The frames were cut out by laying the full-sized templates on top of the sheet of Okume marine plywood and then transferring their outlines by pressing an awl through the water and into the wood. I connected the awl-marks with pencil lines and let my son-in-law cut them out with a jig saw. Each frame was placed on the keel stringer at a specific distance from the stem (or bow) then sanded smooth, their stringer notches cleaned up and beveled to ease the curve of the stringers. Using nylon straps as extra hands, we temporarily assembled the skeleton of the boat by fitting the stringers into the notched and beveled cut-outs on the frames. When we were comfortable with the measurements and alignment of the frames we then pre-drilled and countersunk holes for the fasteners, then screwed and epoxied the stringers into place, sanding and planing everything down to remove sharp edges, saw marks, and dents and dings from the soft cedar.
My plan for the sliding seat was to originally to scavenge the pieces from my old Empacher rowing scull, but in the end I decided to build a new rowing rig from plans sold by Colin Angus of Angus Rowboats. I placed an order for new tracks, foot stretchers, oarlocks, and a carbon fiber seat: by far the most expensive items on the bills of material after the lumber and paint. While I waited for the rowing components to arrive I kept busy planing and sanding the frame until the pieces arrived last week (along with a free copy of Angus’ new book, Rowed Trip about he and his wife’s expedition from Scotland to Syria by rowboat and bicycle). I estimate I spent ten hours building the rowing station and forty on the boat. Oars I already had from the Empacher.
The boat is covered with a 20-foot length of polyester cloth which Gentry advised in his instructions could be secured from George Dyson of the Dyson, Baidarka & Co. in Bellingham, Washington. I emailed George (brother of Esther Dyson, son of physicist Freeman Dyson) and he suggested a heavier weight cloth than the material recommended by Gentry. I went with George’s advice because I was in a bit of awe that I was corresponding with the man credited as the top authority on native kayak design, the hero of the wonderful book The Starship and the Canoe, by Kenneth Brower. and the author of his own work, such as Turing’s Cathedral and his definitive history of the baidarka (the Russian word for kayak), Baidarka: The Kayak.
As the materials for the project were collected, my son-in-law and I cleaned out the boatshop where my grandfather Henry Chatfield Churbuck built a dozen Couit Skiffs after World War II. The workbench was covered with a new layer of masonite, the hardware drawers emptied out and sorted, and anything not related to boat building was hauled away to be stored in the garage. Stainless steel screws, cans of two-part epoxy and microballoons, teak oil, Dynel 3/ 8″ staples, an electric staple gun, an electic hot knife, putty knives, wax paper, countersinks, green polyurethane paint, paint brushes, epoxy brushes — all had to be ordered online or tracked down in stores here on the Cape. Suddenly my initial claim that the two of us could knock the boat out in a single weekend looked very hubristic. I didn’t mind. There are no deadlines with such projects, just set backs and lessons learned and I learned that boat building is best done in short episodes which focus entirely on one essential task and not many. As Gentry wisely points out in his instructions: “Learn to enjoy the zen of repetitive movements.”
The boat is a gift to my daughter. She had a far more illustrious rowing career than I did, winning the national high school championships her first year in a boat, then going on to the junior national team and ultimately the woman’s crew at the University of Virginia. So I wanted to personalize the boat a bit — Gentry encourages it — and since I had saved some black cherry logs from an old tree that came down on Christmas Day three years ago while I was drinking my morning coffee, I decided to put it to use in the boat.
One of the pieces I saved came from the main tree trunk where a major branch split off and the grain made a beautiful V-shaped pattern. The problem was how to get a flat, vertical slice of it which could be shaped into the boat’s breasthook: the “V” of wood that fits into the bow to make a tiny deck. A day spent with the chainsaw, a router, and a lot of sandpaper yielded a nice piece of wood which I managed to split in half when a belt sander launched it off of the sawhorse and into the wall of the shop. But glue solved the crack and the final result justified the huge amount of work required to get that personal touch in place.
The skinning of the boat was fairly simple. We unfolded the bundle of white polyester shipped by George Dyson, lay it flat to get rid of the shipping creases, and then laid over the inverted hull over the keel where we snapped a centerline with a chalk line and pinned the slippery fabric down with a row of pushpins stuck into the wood beneath. We pulled the fabric tightly down dow and stapled it around the edge of the gunwale before trimming off the excess material with the hot knife. After sneaking my wife’s clothes iron out from underneath her nose, we used it to shrink the polyester tight with the heat set on high. I saw very little shrinkage. I was skeptical, but not pessimistic about the watertight integrity of the hull. I reminded myself that racing shells had once been made from laminated sheet of paper, and fiberglass cloth has been used to build boats since the late 1950s. but unlike fiberglass, skin-on-frame (SOF) doesn’t use epoxy to seal the fabric, but instead relies on varnish or regular oil-based boat paint to permeate the fibers and make the skin water tight.
When I ordered the fabric George Dyson wrote :”Most builders of Dave Gentry’s designs are using the 9-ounce polyester, but if you don’t mind the extra weight and favor much higher durability I would personally prefer the 14PE64 (14-ounce polyester, loose basket weave).” I agreed with his expert recommendation because the boat was built to get a lot of use by myself and my daughter and whomever else wants to give it a spin. The wherry ‘s design grants a s far more stable and forgiving a platform for beginners to learn in. Putting a novice in a racing shell will result in many capsizes and possible damage to the boat. But a wherry is wide and stable enough to stay upright on its own while still delivering the total muscle power of the legs.
I also expected the boat to get used by my wife and son-in-law. The boat will be car-topped on some expeditions to other harbors I have long wanted to explore; and with my wife taking to the ergometer and my son-in-law brave enough to trust my carpentry skills there is already talk of building a second companion boat!
After rolling on the first coat of Interlux Brightside Sea Green paint, I realizee heavy cloth was very “thirsty” and would require several coats to completely permeate and seal the weave. I started searching for more Sea Green, but boat paint is evidently in short supply on Cape Cod, and the best I could do was find a quart at West Marine, in Hyannis, another from Falmouth and two half-cans left over from painting my disabled Cotuit Skiff. Gentry’s instructions call for two quarts of paint or varnish, I rolled on three quarts, and still was seeing light shining through the fabric. A lot of SOF builders strive for the translucent look and prefer varnish over opaque paint to cover their skins.
The finishing touches took a week to finish — lots of hand planing, sanding and painting, then a lot of painstaking measurement and modification to the Angus Rowboats sliding seat frame to make it fit inside of the wherry with the right geometry between the seat, foot stretchers and oarlocks.
Yesterday we carried the boat down the hill to the boat ramp, sons and daughters insisting they be present for the builder’s shakedown cruise despite my pleas that they wait until the boat was debugged and adjusted. We dropped her in the water for the first time and immediately she began to leak where the paint hadn’t fully sealed the warp and woof of the polyester along the edges of the chines and the keel. But I had a bailer and I needed to pull a few strokes to judge how well placed the oarlocks, wing rigger, and seat were inside the boat.
I pushed off from the beach, grabbed the two oar handles, and immediately knew the seat was too high and the riggers set too far astern. I managed three strokes, glanced back over my shoulder to look for other boats, and in the process of turning broke the foot stretchers off of the rowing station frame because the screws were too short. That ended the maiden voyage, and as I turned back for the beach, grateful to be facing away from the disappointed cheering sectionm I realized the boat had a couple inches of water sloshing around, a sign the fabric hull was far from watertight.
I made it ashore without sinking,. I managed to climb out without shoving my foot through the floor, and told the crowd the shakedown cruise was a complete success — we learned we had leaks to fix and stretcher boards to reattach and adjustments to make to the seat and riggers, factors that have to be perfect in order to get the geometry of the rowing stroke just right. I also dubbed the boat the “S.S. Cheesecloth” and the name seems to have stuck. It was trudging hike with the boat back up up the hill, but once it was home I headed back to the hardware store for a tube of marine Goop and some longer stainless steel bolts to raise the height of the oarlocks and repair the footplate.
I lifted the boat up from the grass later in the afternoon and used sunlight to reveal where the leaks were. I smeared a thin layer of Goop on the inside of the boat over the worst spots where the paint hadn’t completely filled in the weave. I think two more quarts of paint should completely seal the weave and solve the leaking problem. Now to get the rigging correctly adjusted and figure out some sort of trailer/portage system so one person can walk the boat down the hill by themselves. The roof rack on the Yukon also needs to be set up with pads and straps because as one of the big allures of this design will be the opportunity it affords me to explore some other waters around the Cape such as the salt marsh behind Sandy Neck, Pleasant Bay in Orleans and Chatham, Wellfleet harbor, the Pamet River and so much more.
All in all it took two people working a couple hours per day about a month to complete the boat. Delays were mostly spent waiting for parts and materials to arrive via UPS or the post office. I estimate — counting the time spent running around searching for wood and parts — that the boat could have been built in under 25 hours.
The result is pleasing but far from perfect. The skin isn’t the most beautifully finished hull — it’s coarse like painted canvas and lacks the perfection one gets from painted planking. Lessons learned? Sawdust and shavings pile up alarmingly fast. Cedar dust is not great to breathe, so decent respirators with filters were essential. Silicon-bronze screws, while traditional looking, are very hard to find, so stainless steel did the trick. And time — well, there’s no rushing a boat. This was less an exercise in carpentry and more like fine woodworking, and as I spent many an evening in the old boat shop, lovingly planing wood to perfection, the ghosts of the old Handy shipwrights and my grandfather Chat seemed to come out of the shop walls and guide my hand.
Now to plug the leaks, adjust the riggers, and launch for test row #2. I’m also going to buy a pair of wooden sculls (oars) with the traditional Macon/tulip blade pattern for easier rowing in a chop. A classified ad placed on ROW2K.com found a set up in New Hampshire which will fit the bill.