Thomas French Norton - February 2010
To Smell A Boatyard
Thomas French Norton
It was one of those splendid days, early in springtime, when the sun is warm but the air still has a slight nip to it; the kind of day that raises goose bumps and makes the heart soar. As I rounded a bend in the road, my nostrils suddenly caught a scent that carried me back across decades of delightful memories.
Varnish. Bottom paint. Cedar shavings. Sandpaper dust. Newly scraped barnacles. A hint of the green slime that grows on marine railways between the tides.
It was, in short, the smell of an old-fashioned boatyard where wood and varnish still occupy the hands of craftsmen.
Not so many years ago, all boatyards smelled like that. Today, few do. Unlike fiberglass resins and high-technology coatings, those old smells were good ones that said spring is on the wind and the waterfront is coming to life after a winter of dormancy. You want to hang around such a boatyard. You want to savor it with every olfactory nerve you can bring to bear.
Boatyards probably smelled pretty much the same when Jason set out in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, when Saint Luke embarked with Saint Paul toward a shipwreck on a reef at Malta, when Sir Francis Drake hauled anchor at Portsmouth, when John Paul Jones set forth to harass the British. Vessels were built of wood in those days, sawn and smoothed, drilled and fastened with hand tools and honest toil. Sails were sewn of cotton and flax. Hemp rigging, deck seams and bottom planks were sealed with hot tar.
When you fill your nostrils with the pleasant smells of an old-fashioned boatyard, you claim kinship with Noah, most of the Apostles, Cleopatra of Egypt, Drake and Hawkins, Frobisher and Nelson. A whiff of spar varnish puts you in spiritual touch with great yachts and yachtsmen from Charles II to Carleton Mitchell; from naval architects long forgotten, across the centuries to Starling Burgess, L. Francis Herreshoff, who disdained fiberglass as “frozen snot,” and Olin Stephens of more recent memory.
Sometimes a mere whiff of bottom paint on the air will remind me of early mornings on the Miles River, 60 years ago and more, in the days before big diesels seized the affections of Chesapeake Bay watermen. Out of the mist would come the BARK-chug-chug-chugga-BARK-chug-chug-chugga of a one-lung make-and-break engine, shoving a crabber’s bateau along, growing louder as it drew close, then fading off toward more open water or some sweet cove beyond earshot. A heron, just beginning to warm up in the thin sunlight, might squawk in annoyance and take wing as the bateau racketed past. I would listen keenly and identify the crabber and his boat by the engine’s unique rhythm and intonation.
Anyone who, as I did, spent his youth on the Eastern Shore of Maryland before the Age of Fiberglass, which means prior to the 1970s, can experience just such a flood of happy memories by sniffing around Ed Cutt’s yard in Oxford, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum at St. Michaels or the shop dedicated to Jim Richardson’s memory at Cambridge. Wood remains the building material of choice.
Those of us “of an age” happily recall visits with Uncle Ralph Wiley, the Sage of Oxford, who built boats where Cutts and Case boatyard is today, using much the same materials and some of the same old-time craftsmanship. Uncle Ralph was everyone’s uncle, of course, never too busy to explain his ideas to an interested child or, come to think of it, an interested grandfather. He’s been dead for three decades, but his successor, Ed Cutts, Sr. who recently passed away, was another original thinker who enjoyed a gam with anyone who liked wood and boats in the right combination.
The sail lofts in those days were filled with scents of their own. Although many built sails of Dacron for racing sailors, most also cut and sewed cotton canvas for the working sailboats of the Chesapeake. There still were more than 100 skipjacks and bugeyes working the Chesapeake waters in the 1950s where fewer than ten work today, so sail lofts still offered up scents from bolts of cotton, hanks of tarred marline, coils of the hemp and manila used for bolt ropes and running rigging.
Some boatyards were near public wharves or packing houses where watermen unloaded their crabs or oysters, adding the tang of mud or eel grass to the scents, the crack of bushel baskets to the sounds. That was before waterfront grew too valuable to work for a living. Town Creek at Cambridge was such a place. So was John Tolley’s little yard at the head of Tilghman Creek and so, in fact, was the big and lively Oxford Boatyard, where a cool, dark seafood packing house stood next door. Condominia hunker there now.
Nowadays you can’t see most of the places at all, for they vanished long ago, and the smells that remind us of them are, themselves, endangered. A few exist in quiet coves and creeks. They still can be found in Maine. A few are left along our southeastern waterways. If you look farther afield, you’ll find them at Red Hole in Bermuda, the more remote corners of England, Scotland and Ireland, villages along the European coasts, probably all over the world if you eschew hurried guided tours and take the time to look for them.
If you loved the waterfront – any waterfront – as it was for hundreds or thousands of years, look around for one of the remaining old-time boatyards and just go sit on a piling and smell the air, like Ferdinand and his flowers. It’s almost like a trip back in time.
Captain Norton is a former editor of The Skipper magazine and a retired Naval Aviator.