Anne Stinson - April 2007

Restore a Wooden Boat and Hang On to Your Sanity

by

Anne Stinson

Mudlark’s Ghosts and the Restoration of a Herreshoff Meadow Lark, by Ian Scott. Seafarer Books and Sheridan House, UK and US Publishers. 176 pp., $19.95.

   Here’s a quixotic tale – an obsession, almost – about a man and a boat. Not just any man nor any boat. The man is Ian Scott, a sometime resident of Oxford, and his dogged efforts to save a deteriorating, nearly classic wooden boat by a bona fide classic boat designer, L. Francis Herreshoff.
    What with one thing and another, the quest took 12 years for the restoration from purchase to launch. It wasn’t so much that Scott dawdled during the largely do-it-yourself project: the exhausting and often-frustrating repairs of an old boat. The chore had to be sandwiched into a schedule that juggled vacation time in his native England, a demanding job in McLean, VA, with the World Bank (he retired as a Director in 1996) and two extensive car rallies, one a huge circle around half of South America and a later and longer one, an overland drive from London to Sydney, Australia.
    During summertime vacations in England for family reunions he had an opportunity to sail his UK “fleet,” a collection of small boats – mostly wooden – acquired over the years, eventually numbering six on the far side of the Atlantic and five collected over the years at his weekend house on this side.
    Skeptics like to say the definition of a boat – and especially a wooden boat – is “a hole in the water into which you pour money.” Anyone who’s ever owned a wooden boat knows that maintenance is an all-the-time thing. Fortunately, Scott found routine upkeep and boat restoration a pleasant and engrossing chore. His main residence in the US was McLean, close to his Washington, D.C., office, but a house in Oxford was home base for weekend sailing and boat work.
    The book at hand is based on a wooden boat Scott acquired in Oxford, but its story is all of a piece with his lifetime fascination with small boats. Half lyrically, half pedantically, Scott begins his saga with rather a long-winded discourse on the lore and lure of wooden boats, eventually launching into the tale of Mudlark, the boat of the book title.
    Mudlark was built as a variation on a popular wooden boat designed by L. Francis Herreshoff, a legendary designer and son of the famous boat builder and designer Capt. Nat Herreshoff of Bristol, R.I. Herreshoff the younger called the class Meadow lark, but Scott credits (and sometimes blames) the Four Ghosts of the book title for his Lark that was named for Mud, not Meadow.
    But all that is in the future. As Water Rat said in The Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Scott was infected with the passion at a relatively young age. Visiting his soon-to-be in-laws in Norfolk – The English Norfolk on the North Sea, not the city at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay – he admired and was invited to sail in a locally built sharpie, a style described as narrow, sharp-ended, hard chine, low freeboard craft with leeboards or centerboards, all conducive to working in shallow water.
Many nautical writers call sharpies a distinctive American design. Scott demurs, noting similar vessels in many parts of the world. At Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, Scott watched the local sailing club racing their “sharpies,” actually a hybrid design built for racing and day sailing. At a length of 19’8”, the sloop was “almost too big to be called a dinghy, yet too small to be called a yacht,” Scott wrote.
    So much for first meetings. In the meantime, Scott put his toe in the water, so to speak, by building a kayak from a kit so he’d have his own boat for vacations.
    Fast forward 15 years, and Scott and his family are once again on their annual vacation in England. His home-built kayak-from-a-kit has been sold and replaced with another small boat, this one a 12’ dinghy with seats and headroom under the boom. It’s a fine little family boat, suitable for sailing, rowing or outboard motoring. What should turn up but the great temptation, the siren on the waves; a local sharpie is up for sale. He and a brother-in-law go halvsies on the purchase. Now Scott has two boats in England.
    Alas, in America, where Scott spends at least 10 months of the year, his boat score is zero. His three-year World Bank assignment in Bogota, Columbia, is at an end, and the Scotts are back in their house in McLean, just an hour and a half from the Chesapeake Bay, prime sailing water.
Now, a caveat for the reader: Unless you have already been infatuated with or actually restored an old wooden boat, your eyes may well glaze over with the next 50-plus pages. Scott is meticulous in his technical descriptions of the Mudlark’s adaptation from its original design. All by way of explaining why the book’s title refers to “Ghosts,” Scott dissects the aims of (Ghost #1) Herreshoff, the designer; the modifications in the overall design that were specified by (Ghost #2) Dr. Peter Horvath, the original owner; the new specs drawn up by Naval Architect (Ghost #3) Fenwick C. Williams, and the builder of the finished boat, (Ghost #4) U. W. Smith.
    Scott has various levels of rage and contempt for nearly all of the infamous quartet. Perhaps his most toxic bile is reserved for the actual builder, the hapless Mr. Smith, whose boat shed in Hollywood, MD, is two and a half miles from the nearest launching water. One can almost hear the sound of gnashing molars as Scott sums up Smith’s shortcomings: “...It’s surprising he [Dr. Horvath] chose to have his unique variant of Meadow Lark built by a man [Smith] who was at best a semi-professional, at worst an amateur and not a very talented one at that.”
    At any rate, Dr. Horvath must have been well-enough pleased with the result to sail Mudlark around the Bay for 18 years. He sold her in 1971 to John Bloggs, a US Coast Guard officer, who used her as a live-aboard residence at Washington Marina, Maine Avenue on the Potomac. Scott is fairly scathing about Bloggs’ stewardship until six years later when Mudlark was sold to Peter Dunbar, a marine biologist living on Town Creek in Oxford. Dunbar sailed and maintained her for 16 years without undertaking a major refit.
    It was there that Scott found Mudlark, fell immediately in love with her and commenced his first seven years of revival of a boat already 40 years old. Scott somewhat cryptically calls those years “a history of denial, prevarication, inexperience and incompetence.” He’s talking about himself and the struggle to learn new skills. In the process he constantly discovers incomprehensible details and, to his dismay, ...”I was on unfamiliar ground, largely ignorant of both substance and method...” The next few years, Mudlark stayed at Shaw’s Boatyard in Oxford while Scott crammed as much boat work as he could manage into weekends. As he sums it up, “I bumbled along.”
    In the passage of time, he reached retirement and bought a house, a second home, on Town Creek in Oxford. A major problem arose and Mudlark had to be moved to indoor winter storage (and part of a second winter) at Town Point in Easton. By this time, the Scotts’ US fleet had grown to include a Cabin Boy skiff, dubbed Lesser Mudlark, and an aluminum speedboat they named Metalark. Shortly thereafter on a trip to the UK, Scott bought yet another boat (by this time, your reviewer has turned dizzy and lost count).
    Meanwhile, back in Oxford, Mudlark is ailing again, this time critically. She was leaking so badly that major surgery was imminent. Phase one of “messing about in small boats” is history. The second seven-year project, essentially deconstruction and rebuilding the boat, began. The process is labeled under three stages in Scott’s account: From Hard ... To Harder ... And Harder...
    Each successful restoration revealed another problem that had to be solved before going forward. Dogged stubbornness seemed to replace common sense as Scott plodded on, “in for a penny, in for a pound.” He had to invest in bigger, more professional tools, and learn to master them.
He had also had to compromise with some of his purist attitudes about restoration. Would Herreshoff have been contemptuous at Scott’s lavish use of epoxy to seal the boat’s wooden parts from leaks? Or would Herreshoff have embraced the use of epoxy, a product unheard of when he designed wooden boats?
    Scott concludes his grand adventure with a philosophical assessment of the Herculean effort.
   “I did care about tradition, about heritage, about keeping faith with the past and about the wooden boat as an icon of continuity in a plastic world. But I cared more about preservation, about giving old things new life, about making them good for the next twenty or even fifty years....”
    He adds for emphasis, “If anybody told me I had somehow violated a trust, denigrated traditional craftsmanship or broken the rules I would (probably) resist the temptation to tell him (or her) to get lost....
   “I’d explain that I’d unequivocally done the right thing, the right way, that I was pleased and proud with what I’d done: that if I were to do it again (which I wouldn’t because once is enough) I’d do it the same way except that, knowing what I know now, I’d do it better, faster and more economically, and that – and here’s the punch line – if the old guys had had access to modern tools, materials and techniques they’d have used them too.”
    The reviewer tried to reach Scott by telephone in late February with no success. He may be en route on a leisurely cruise in Mudlark down the Intercoastal Waterway. Whatever holiday he’s enjoying, he’s earned it.