On the water in October

Chasing fish on a Saturday afternoon in Cotuit

Yesterday was a perfect day to get on the water with a fishing rod. After doing the usual chores to absolve any guilt, we circled Dead Neck to check out the last of the dredging and admired the new mountain of sand near the Wianno Cut.

Mount Seapuit

Stripers were blitzing near the Cotuit Oyster Company’s grant in the middle of the bay, so we drifted along the shore of Grand Island and caught (and released) a few hungry schoolies. With only a few weeks left before the dinghy has to come off the beach, boating season is coming to an end.

An October Blow

I read a depressing story in the New York Times yesterday about the sick trees of Massachusetts, beset with borers, weevils and fungi, getting hammered as the climate changes and local nurseries have started to offer species from the mid-Atlantic region instead of the native hardwoods and pines that have been here for 10,000 years.

The late Paul Noonan told me the old timers in Cotuit said summer always ended in October with a big blow from the southwest. I guess that happened yesterday. The morning was calm enough to make me guilty about not going for a row and one of the Ospreys was still complaining atop the tall pine tree in the woods behind the shop, and once again I fretted a bit that the birds usually decamp for South America the third week of September and have shown no signs of migrating like the rest of the flock. I knew it was going to get windy, with gusts forecasted to reach 50 mph, and that’s exactly how it blew all day, just like it does every October when the humidity suddenly vanishes and the cricket in the shop starts to chirp slower and slower with the coming cold.

I don’t imagine the ospreys picked the day of gale to fly straight into the face of the cold front coming at us from where they are going, and I wasn’t surprised the morning after the gale when I went outside to discover them still in residence, after a long stormy night when I pictured them gritting their big beaks, menhaden-ripping talons locked around a tossing branch, facing into the tempest like pirates pissing to windward after the sun went down and the winds built up to their grand finale.

The gusts had been building every minute or so, holding their breath at the peak then subsiding and letting the shaken trees compose themselves before the next one built up and swept over the yard. Around dinnertime one gust kept building and building and went from a Force 8 on the Beaufort Scale to a Force 11 on the Nigel Tufnel scale, shaking the old house, its window frames and iron sash slugs clattering and bonging in the walls, the flimsy, sill-rotted frame of the sail loft and boat shop creaking like the end was near.

Then a big bang as a huge limb of honey locust, tree turds and all came down in the back garden, just missing the roof of the loft and the double doors at the end of the shop. My neighbor Phil’s cars weren’t so lucky and this morning we agreed it’s time for the old tree to be cut down. Honey Locusts only live 120 years or so, and this one is massive and has been shedding limbs the past few seasons. Even though the last arborist to work on the tree rigged some steel cables, the one that suspended last night’s victim got unhooked and the result is a mess of seed pods, broken branches and leaves.

“I don’t want to be the last boat builder”

A marvelous profile of one of the last of the wooden shipwrights in Essex, Massachusetts. the center of colonial ship building on the North Shore.

I found this brief profile of one of the state’s last shipwrights while researching the history of shipbuilding in Massachusetts. Harold Burnham’s ancestors started building boats in the 1600s in Essex on the North Shore. He’s still at it today, preserving a bit of history one tree at a time.

Drive-in Dead

In which I go to a “Dead” concert at a Cape Cod drive in

The last time I saw the Grateful Dead play was sometime in the early 90, shortly before Jerry Garcia’s death. Since then I’ve never been bothered to go to any of the post-Dead bands’ concerts by the likes of Dead & Co, Further, Phil Lesh and Friends, Bobby and the Midnights … I never was a fan of tribute bands and getting me to pull out my wallet to pay current ticket prices only happens if the band is sort of still together and I’m buying the tickets as a present for my wife who is far more of a true fan of the music than I am.

Early last week I caught the news that the Dark Star Orchestra would be playing two shows on Friday and Saturday nights at the old Yarmouth Drive-In on Route 28 here on Cape Cod. $150 bought me the right to show up in a vehicle with up to four people, so I bought the tickets and told my wife and son we were going. Was it a responsible thing to do with Covid cases on the rise here in Massachusetts? Would it be fun or a pain in the ass? Would the band be any good?

Who cares. It was the first weekend of the fall, the weather was great, and seriously, it’s not like the social calendar is crowded with other competition for my leisure time.

Got to love a faux lighthouse

The band was great. The facility was well run and we were directed at our “suite” staked out by wooden posts and ropes in the fourth row and slightly to the right. The crowd was in the spirit, tons of tie-dye shirts, battery powered blinking lights, glow sticks and clouds of marijuana everywhere.

We backed in, opened the rear lid of the SUV, and hung out in the back of the car or on the bumper. Two sets and three hours later, I predicted two out of the last three songs — Stella Blue, Sugar Magnolia, and an encore of US Blues. Son and wife looked at me like a wizard when I announced “we are outta here” and loaded up the car for an early exit before the usual traffic jam. We listened to US Blues on the radio (Your Car is the PA!) as we cruised down a deserted Route 28 under a rising moon, past the t-shirt shops and mini-golf courses towards home.

I’d do it again — the drive-in concert experience that is. When the band said these were their first concerts since February I was sad for all those musicians who are grounded by the quarantine. Hats off to the promoter who figured out the drive-in solution, but still it felt sad to consider that the Yarmouth Drive-In claims to be the biggest live music venue in New England this summer.

Forty-Six Years of WoodenBoat Magazine

Decades of wooden boat knowledge in a USB key

First published in 1974, WoodenBoat Magazine is one of those rare magazines best read in print, never thrown away, and kept in a safe place for that inevitable time in the future when one needs to know the proper way to caulk a seam, steam a plank, or scribe a new waterline. I’ve been a occasional subscribers to the bimonthly for some time, but every so often, as I try to teach myself how to build a new boat or repair an old one, I turn to the WoodenBoat online forums, ask a question and receive a reply that my question was answered in an issue from long ago.

If I’m really desperate for the knowledge I buy a single electronic issue from the WoodenBoat store. But having done that several times in the past few months, I gladly parted with $170 to receive a USB packed with all 276 issues. It arrived this morning, packaged in a beautiful wooden case inlaid with a brass anchor and ship’s wheel.

Every publisher should do this with their archive of past issues

When dealing with boats, there’s no such thing as a bargain, but this investment translates into a per issue cost of sixty-one cents. Not bad for a gorgeous magazine that costs $7.95 on the newsstand.

Now, if I can only figure out the index to the issues (the file seems to be corrupted), I need to hunt down an article about building half-models, which in turn will lead me to other articles about lofting and other arcane pieces of shipwright knowledge that can’t be found any place else.

And I need to figure out what to do with the wooden case, with some modifications it might be a nice case for my collection of rusty sailmaker needles.

Here’s the cover of the first issue:

Circumnavigating Grand Island

In the mid 1990s I purchased a single scull to row around Cotuit Bay. I built a rack for it on the back fence and painted the blades of the two oars with the same green-yellow-white palette used by my grandmother to help my color-blind grandfather pick out my father’s skiff from the rest of the fleet. Every weekend morning when I was home from NYC I would wake up at dawn, put on a pair of rowing shorts that were more likely than not still wet from the last row, slip on some rubber clogs and slip out the back door to lift the boat from its rack and swing it up and onto my head for the walk down Main Street and Old Shore Road to the harbor.

I’d pretend to laugh if someone I knew drove up the hill and rolled down their window to say “Nice hat!”

If I was lucky the tide would be high, otherwise I’d have to kick off the clogs and squish through the primordial clam mud, 40-lbs. and 29-feet of racing shell held high overhead with locked arms, grimacing as I stepped on broken clam shells and the black goo squirted between my toes before I could reach enough water to roll the hull out and down with a splash. The ladies of the Cotuit Rowing Club would wave as they rigged their oars in a four. Fishermen would look at me suspiciously as they backed their trailers down the ramp and checked out the fat guy with the too-tight shorts about to climb onto an impossibly skinny boat.

I’d set off on flat calm waters as the sun topped the pine trees on Grand Island, heading across Cotuit Bay, picking my way carefully out of the anchorage and down the fairway to open water where I’d turn the bow to point down the long straightaway into North Bay, lining up the narrow stern with the steeple of the Masonic Temple next door to Freedom Hall.

Ten strokes, starting with short quarter, half, then three-quarter length slides up and down the tracks on the rolling seat to get the boat moving, settling down to full strokes and lengthening every catch and drive as I started to sweat in the morning humidity. Turn around on the tenth stroke, take a quick snapshot over my shoulder for any obstacles like moorings, channel markers, fishermen cruising out to the Sound without any navigation lights, or other rowers, kayakers or paddleboarders who might not see me paddling away. Then counting off ten more stokes, looking backwards and upsetting the boat a bit, readjusting the course by pressing down on one foot more than the other.

Having plowed a borrowed Alden Ocean Shell double into a moored Boston Whaler, and rowing borrowed Grahame King double head oninto another boat at a regatta on the Charles River, my paranoia of rowing backwards without the guidance of a front-facing coxswain is deep and abiding.

The first leg from the cove at Ropes Beach through Inner Harbor to the Narrows is about 1000 meters. On the ergometer each stroke is typically counted as ten meters, so ten strokes can cover 100 meters. a distance long enough that a backwards glance is only enough to see if the next ten strokes can be hard ones, or if the bow is pointed at a dock and needs to start curving to port on the third stroke to thread the gap between the red channel can and the float at the end of the pier. I stay out of the channel at all times, preferring to hug the shore and find the gap there between any anchored boats and the beach. That way, if I flip the boat I wind up in waist deep water, a good thing if the water temperature is under 50 degrees and hypothermia becomes a fear.

10,000 meters of some of the best rowing water there is.

Then the transit of North Bay, the designated water skiing area, where everyone pushes the throttles down to the deck and relieves the boredom of the 6 mph speed limits in effect everywhere else in the Three Bay estuary. Fast motorboats can generate huge tsunami wakes that come at a rower from the side, lifting you three feet up, oars wildly swinging in the air, rolling you into the trough where the next wave washes over the boat and soaks one’s lower body in green water. Some motorboaters get enraged when a sculler paralleling the channel passes them on the right and pulls away. Once they hit North Bay they want to get away from me like an old lady passing a hedge fund princeling riding his $20,000 Colnago down the middle of Main Street, and take off with a roar and a big fart of two-stroke outboard exhaust for me to inhale on the next stroke.

Still, I catch up to them again within a mile when they leave the bay and hit the channel into Osterville and the boat yards. That’s where careful navigation is needed, threading through moorings off of the fourth hole of the Wianno Club golf course before sliding down the main channel between the boat yards and gas docks. The drawbridge is always tricky because the current accelerates under the span and its best to stay out of the center and take the shoreside arch in case another boat is coming around the corner from the Wianno Yacht Club.

Yesterday, as I rowed into West Bay, I realized the winds had shifted and started to swing back towards the usual southwest direction it blows from most of the summer. The gusts left over from Hurricane Teddy (which passed well to the east of Chatham the day before on its way to Canada) were shrieking in the late afternoon sunshine, kicking up a jagged chop as I popped out from under the draw bridge. Fetch and shadow is the trick to open water rowing. Fetch being the amount of open water that the wind has to work with to churn up any waves. The more fetch there is, the higher the waves. The wind shadow is the calm area in the lee, or downwind side of any land mass, usually extending out five to ten times the height of the land and trees. When transiting West Bay, a shallow body of water bisected by a busy channel, sometimes the trick isn’t to take the shortest line to the head of the bay, but to tough out a few minutes of taking the waves on the beam, the boat rolling a lot in the chop, just to gain the strip of calm water beneath the verdant mansions on Oyster Harbor’s eastern shore.

I was pooped by the time I sculled up to the entrance of the Osterville Cut, the man-made ditch flanked by stone jetties that divides the barrier beach of Dead Neck from the Osterville mainland. A big swell was infiltrating the bay through the channel out into Nantucket Sound, putting the wherry to its first big test since I launched it in mid-August, rolling me around enough to make me a bit queasy as I crossed the sandbar at the entrance to the Seapuit River, a shallow area the colonists called the “Wading Place” because they could drive their cattle across at low tide to graze on the island’s salt hay.

I waited for a couple of motorboats to make their intentions known, then zipped across the Seapuit to Dead Neck, beached the bow and hopped out, ancient bones and sore muscles making me hobble around on the beach while I drank some water and pulled out the pump to empty the wherry (which still leaks a bit, but had been taking an occasional wave over the side as I crossed the bay and took the wind broadside).

The Seapuit River is my favorite stretch in the entire 10,000 meter row. The sand dunes of Dead Neck block the worst of the wind, the river is too narrow for any chop to build up, and this time of year, when the water begins to clear, it’s a pleasure to skim over the shallows near the beach grass and get a clear stretch of water for some hard speed work.

My buddy Steve and I agree the worst part of the row is the end of the river where it enters Cotuit Bay near Cupid’s Cove, the ancient harbor entrance that silted over after the Osterville Cut was built in the early 1900s. On a southwest wind there’s a lot of fetch across lower Cotuit Bay and white caps build up over the shallows before crashing into the shoreline of Oyster Harbors where they bounce back into the next set of waves, creating a vicious chop that has to be transited broadside. I’ve had some dicey moments in my Empacher over the years, filling the cockpit with water and rolling so hard my knuckles would get smashed on the gunwales, but in the wherry the ride was bearable, I just had to grit my teeth and “sky” my blades high in the air during the recovery to keep them from spanking the tops of the waves.

And then, with the end in sight, it was a matter of getting through the Cotuit Oyster Company’s grant, covered with little black buoys, across the main channel, and back into the mooring field off of Ropes Beach.

I pulled ashore next to the boat ramp, pumped out the boat to lighten the load, picked up the stern and set the green hull into the trolley I made out of PVC pipe and wheelbarrow tires. I had circumnavigated the Three Bays estuary for the first time in who-knows-how-long, something I hadn’t realized I missed until I finished it. Ten years ago, when I was competing as a “senior master” in fall regattas from the Green Mountain Head (my favorite) to the Head of the Charles (the most prestigious), I was rowing around the island five or six times a week, timing myself from the drawbridge to home because that’s roughly the same distance as the Head of the Charles course. In those days I could make the entire 9,250 meter row in 40 minutes. It took me over an hour this week. As Charlie Clapp says, “The older we get, the faster we were.”

As I strap the boat into the trolley and make it ready to be dragged up the hill to the house, every time without fail, someone stops their car, gets out and walks down the boat ramp to admire the boat and ask me if I built it, an indication I suppose of the boat’s unfinished condition and people’s fascination with home built boats in this era of plastic kayaks. I haven’t cleaned up the wooden frame since assembling the boat, so bits of dried epoxy and smears of paint need to be chipped and scraped off before I can consider varnishing the red cedar. Right now the wood is protected with a coat of teak oil, but I think later this fall I’ll put some time into finishing the boat properly before suspending her from the rafters of the garage in a kayak/canoe sling I purchased on Amazon.

Every row in the boat is an opportunity to tune the rig a little bit to make it row easier and smoother. I’ve had two Olympic rowers — Charlie Clapp and John Bigelow — take a look at the setup of the riggers, slide, foot stretchers and oarlocks. Both agree I needed to get my weight lower and the oarlocks higher. Once all the adjustments are made and I know I won’t be trimming any wood to get thing exactly right, then I can declare the boat finished and spend some time with a can of varnish to make her gleam.

Fine tuning the wherry

Tuning the new boat for better rowing

B Churbuck on the oars

I started building my first boat with expectations of turning it out in a weekend. but of course between the conception and the creation falls the shadow, and that shadow mostly consisted of scrounging for the right lumber and assorted pieces or waiting for UPS to deliver an order of epoxy and paint. While the construction was a great experience — especially planing things to fit with my beloved Lie-Nielsen pocket plane — I didn’t realize how long it would take to debug and adjust the boat to the point where it could be safely and easily rowed.

I built the boat for my daughter. She won the National High School Rowing championships in the coxed four event, went on to the Junior National Team, and eventually the women’s crew at the University of Virginia. I was surprised to see her post a picture of herself in the new boat on Instagram with the caption that it was her first row in a decade. Rowing is one of those sports that is very specific in terms of special equipment, and unless one joins a rowing club or buys a shell of their own, most rowers never pull an oar handle again unless its for an alumni row.

The trick in setting up a shell for sculling (when the rower has an oar in each hand) is finding the sweet spot in the boat to place the sliding seat and foot stretchers. Angus Rowboats has an excellent guide to sculling geometry, and entire books have been written about the science of rigging a shell, but I found the process to be one of patiently making incremental adjustments, setting the oarlocks a centimeter higher or lower, shifting the seat assembly aft towards the stern, everything clamped temporarily in place until that elusive sweet spot can be found before epoxying it all in place.

The leaks were easy to fix. I placed the boat on saw horses in a dark garage, bottom up, and slid a bright worklight under the boat, waving it around inside of the hull while I stood outside and looked for bright spots of light. I marked those with a piece of masking tape, flipped the boat upright, and coated the inside of the fabric hull with a skim coat of marine Goop — essentially rubber cement and silicone. Three coats of Interlux Sea Green boat paint on the exterior also sealed any open mesh in the polyester, and after three hunts of leaks I finally got the hull to the point where it barely leaks at all.

A small trailer was built from instructions on REI’s website for building a kayak caddy. A couple wheelbarrow wheels, two long lengths of schedule 40 3/4″ PVC, T-connectors, 45 and 90 degree joints, a poodle noodle filched from the back of the beach car, some glue and some straps, and now I can walk the boat down the hill to the bay every morning and get in a quick 5000 meters before sitting down for a day of work.

The boat rows extremely well in all conditions. One of the shakedown cruises was done in a 20 knot breeze and the boat handled the harbor chop beautifully. The hull tracks true and doesn’t hobby-horse over waves, slicing through them nicely. The run, or amount of glide between strokes, is less than a racing shell, but I can average five or six knots rowing at half-pressure.

Now that the rig is set, I can focus on cleaning up the boat and putting the finishing touches on it. I’m confident that I can row it year-round, especially if I’m careful when hypothermia is a threat and keep within swimming distance of the shore should the boat capsize or swamp. Winter is looking better by the minute.

First Boat: the Ruth Wherry

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.

second shakedown cruise: still leaking and the slide needs to be clamped down, otherwise much better than the first attempt

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.

It leaks but it rows

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.

Lines of the Ruth Wherry (from Gentry Custom Boats)

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.

One can never have enough clamps

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.

Black Cherry breasthook with “character” crack

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.

First coat of paint before trimming the fabric to the gunwales

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.

Portage down Old Shore Road

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.

The builders
Chamfering the stem

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.

If you have a boat shop you need to build a boat
The setup entails getting the center of gravity fore and aft just so while adjusting the height of the oarlocks relative to the seat and the rower’s hips, the pitch ( or angle off of perpendicular to the surface of the water) of the oarlocks, the span of the oarlocks, and the height of the seat. The objective is to capture a full range of motion with no impingement that allows the blades of the oars to cleanly enter and exit the water, and track solidly throughout the drive of the legs. Any deviation can cause the blades to crab or slice too deep, or “wash out” and not fully bury themselves. Adjustments also have to take into account the height of the thighs relative to the oar handles so the feathered blades can glide above the water without skipping through the recovery. Entire text books have been wriitten about how to rig a racing shell. I’m trusting to what feels right.