The rowboat was a flat-bottomed skiff around fifteen or sixteen feet long. It may have once been painted white, but by the time I made its acquaintance it was a uniform driftwood gray. It was probably made of cypress or yellow pine; all I remember for sure was that it was very slow and ponderous and leaky, and it had a set of equally weatherbeaten and heavy oars. Not that we used the oars very much. The thing was so stable you could stand on the little foredeck and pole it along with a long-handled crab net, just like the old man who made his rounds in the shallows every morning early and talked so fast I could never understand a word. The only difference was he actually saw and caught all the soft crabs that us kids were only looking for.
The water in the St. Mary’s River was so clear then that you could actually see all the way to the bottom until it got pretty deep, and you could also actually see all the shiny little fish who looked at your bait and laughed. Grandpop let my siblings and cousins and me do pretty much any fool thing we wanted with the rowboat, as long as we never touched “the speedboat,” his plywood runabout that had a windshield and a steering wheel and a blue Evinrude motor that sometimes started and ran. We never wore life jackets in the rowboat, and to the best of my knowledge none of us ever drowned. Our family got to stay only a week or so every summer at Grandpop’s house, which was exactly a hundred and twelve miles from our home in Baltimore, but when we were there, I spent every possible minute either in the rowboat or on the pier, never understanding why the adults and Grandpop’s beagle preferred to just sit on the screened porch and look at the river. Those times were by far the happiest of my childhood, maybe my whole life. And I’m not the only one, apparently. Just last week we had a family reunion, and I asked my cousin Laura what she remembered about Grandpop’s house. “Oh, the rowboat!” she said without even needing to think about it.
So that’s how I got started in boats, but I didn’t actually build one until the summer between eighth grade and high school when my friend Will and I, rich with lawn-mowing money, decided we could afford the 26 dollars plus freight for the Chippewa canoe kit we saw advertised in Popular Mechanics or one of those magazines. According to the ad, all you had to do was assemble the wooden frame, cover it with canvas, paint it with ordinary house paint, and off you’d go in your very own boat. One of our dads drove us to the train depot to pick up the cardboard cartons of canoe parts, which we took to Will’s basement and commenced to assemble, at least when we weren’t looking at those other magazines his dad thought he had hidden in a box under the workbench.
It became fairly obvious after we had only a few frames attached to the keel that this was going to be one clunky looking canoe, not at all like the sleek Grummans we had paddled at scout camp, but we persevered until I broke my leg wrestling with another kid and my mobility was severely limited by a giant plaster cast. Ever the shrewd businessman, Will bought out my half and finished the boat. I got to paddle it with him the next spring, and although it was really ugly and not quite the paradigm of good handling, it did float. Later Will decided to fiberglass it, which made it less brittle but so damned heavy it was a pain in the butt to use. The last I remember it was sitting upside-down, forlorn and yellow and still ugly on a pipe rack in the far corner of his parents’ back yard.
I didn’t build another boat for a long, long time, but when my wife, Theo, and I took up sea kayaking, and she absolutely hated the boat we bought for her, a plastic Prijon Seayak that really needed a rudder but didn’t have one, I decided to try my hand at building her a Chesapeake Light Craft kayak kit. That boat turned out fine - we still have it - and I loved building it even though I was making my living then as a carpenter and didn’t even want to see a hammer or saw when I got home let alone use one, because the kind of woodworking involved in building a boat was so completely different from making kitchen cabinets or hanging a door. Then one of my customers found out about my project and asked me to build him a boat, from plans he had seen in (you guessed it) Popular Mechanics or one of those magazines, and so for about a week I was a professional boatbuilder. That boat was a little scow that Albert wanted for his pond, and he insisted that I build it out of Home Depot shelving lumber because that’s what the plans specified. If he had kept it painted, it might have lasted a number of seasons before it rotted to pieces, but he didn’t.
Since then I’ve built another pond boat out of tortured plywood and a traditionally planked hull for a Chesapeake Bay crabbing skiff (lost my building space before I got the whole boat finished and gave it away), rebuilt a George Dyson skin-on-frame baidarka, and designed and built an 18-foot cabin boat for use on large Maine lakes (see my series of articles on “Building a Lake Skiff” here on Duckworks). The Lake Skiff, alas, was sold along with our Maine house when we decided we were not going to live there full-time, Theo having heard rumors that it gets cold there in winter. I hope the boat’s new owners are still enjoying it.
The good news is that we now live on the Nanticoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, not all that far across the Bay from Grandpop’s house on the St. Mary’s. We have a screened porch where we sit with Hal the beagle and look at the river, and a large garage just itching to become a boat shop. And there’s also a structure on our pier, weathered gray and needing some wood replacement because of carpenter bees but still pretty sturdy, that looks like it was once and could be again a set of davits for a small boat. Maybe, for example, a fifteen or sixteen-foot rowboat.