Dick Cooper - March 2011

 

Apprentice for a Day
Learn How to Build a Wooden Boat and have Fun Along the Way
by
Dick Cooper

 

It is a cold winter Saturday, and the temperature inside the Boat Shop at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is only a few degrees above freezing.
“When I got here this morning, some of the water bottles were frozen,” says one of the men gathered at the cast-iron woodstove in the middle of the vaulted shop.
Behind them, several others, including Mary Sue and Bob Traynelis of St. Michaels, are working on the skeletal frame of a rowing skiff. With small sharp hand planes, they are shaping the keel of the sixteen-foot double-ender that will evolve into a varnished beauty over the next several months.
The skiff is this winter’s project for the Apprentice for a Day program, affectionately known as AFAD. The Museum’s Boat Yard Manager, Rich Scofield, and Program Manager, Dan Sutherland, oversee a handful of wannabe boat builders every Saturday and Sunday through the winter, teaching the intricate skills of turning a pile of wood into a graceful and eye-pleasing vessel.
The Traynelises, natives of New Jersey, worked in the high-tech industry in San Jose, California, before they traded in the world of algorithms for the slower paced biorhythms of the Eastern Shore.
Mary Sue says she took an AFAD class last year, learning how to build a child’s paddle boat. Bob says his wife was so excited about the process that she built an adult-sized paddle boat at home on her own.
“I am having a blast,” Mary Sue says as she marks off measurements on the skiff’s frame using cashier’s tape to make sure both sides are the same.
They commissioned the skiff, patterned after a classic small craft designed by J. H. Rushton more than a century ago, and are working alongside the AFAD classmates on weekends. Mary Sue says she finds herself in the Boat Shop five or six days a week, helping out as a museum volunteer as well.
“Since my skill level was below what you could call ‘apprentice,’ I sort screws and clean up the shop,” she says. “Just figuring out where all the tools go and learning how to sharpen the tools has increased my skill level.”
Scofield and Sutherland say the program was started eight years ago and has been a way to show boat building skills to weekend Museum visitors. “It gets activity in the shop all of the time,” Scofield says. “Someone can come in on a Saturday and see a boat being built and say, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool, can I join that or can I come back tomorrow?’ We get more spontaneous interest from visitors.”
On the other side of the Boat Shop, two Smith Island crabbing skiffs sit in various stages of the building process.
The white-painted 18-footer belongs to Earle “Roo” Wood of Easton, and 12-year-old Mack Northrop and his father, John, of Royal Oak are building the 20-footer next to it. Their stories are examples of how the AFAD program has changed over time.
When the program started, the “apprentices” built boats and the Museum put the boats up for sale. Now, Scofield says, the boats are commissioned by owners who work with AFAD and the Boat Shop staff.
Wood says that he spent a few years trying to find a builder to construct a crab skiff like the one he had when he was growing up on the water. He says he couldn’t find a craftsman on Smith or Taylors Island who was up for the task.
“The talent has gone by the wayside,” he says.
He told Scofield of his dilemma, and the veteran boat builder said his Boat Shop team could build it at the Museum.
“I told him I would be happy to pay him up front,” says Wood. “And with a handshake, he agreed.”
Wood says that one of the conditions of the agreement was that the Museum would try to attract younger “apprentices” to AFAD. Sutherland and Scofield put together a six-week class to build the skiff that was targeted at teenagers. About that same time, John Northrop, a longtime Museum member, asked Scofield to build a crabbing skiff for Mack.
“About four years ago, I gave my son a jon boat with a six-horse outboard and he really took to crabbing,” Northrop says. “The jon boat was getting kind of worn out. When I asked Rich if he could build a skiff, he said they were just getting ready to build one.”
Northrop says he and his son joined the class and were involved in every phase, from the lofting to completion. “When it was finished, I commissioned hull number two for Mack. We have been building it together.”
Northrop says his son has customized his boat. “He wants a cabin, wider washboards and two steering stations,” Northrop says. “In addition to building boats, he has started building model boats out of popsicle sticks at home. We both have learned a lot of new skills, and I have been able to spend quality time with my son,” he says.
Wood says his skiff will be launched this spring and his 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter will take boating safety courses so they can use it. He says he was about their age when he got his first boat.
“The whole idea was to get interest from younger people and get them out on the water,” Wood says. “Everything I hoped for came together.”
Mary Sue Traynelis stands back from the Rushton frame and sights down the length of the keel, looking for edges that might need more sanding or planing.
“I came here thinking I would do a weekend or two,” she says. “Then I came back another day and another day. I got hooked.”
Scofield says the “apprentices” often form a bond and return to work on new projects.
“We had a storm around Christmas and the Museum was closed on a Saturday because of the ice and snow,” he says. “When I got to the Boat Shop there were 12 people working inside.”
For more information about the Apprentice for a Day Program, call the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum at 410-745-2916 or go to www.cbmm.org and click on “Learn.” There are no skill requirements. The cost is $35 a day for Museum members and $45 for non-members.

Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Md. He can be reached at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.