Sixteen Romantics Build And 1890s Boat 'By Committee'

December 16, 1990

Some dreams come true.

The romanticism of sailing a wooden ship on the Chesapeake Bay has always tugged at Ed Carson strongly.

With a wistful look, the Forest Hill resident says, "I've always been intrigued by boats I saw in the bay in the '50s when I was a kid. And you don't see them anymore. So I wanted to build one."

On Tuesday nights, you'll find Carson, an electronics technician by day, living the dream.

Along with 16 other novices, Carson is building a 20-foot Chesapeake sharpie -- a single-masted, long, narrow sailing craft popular in the 1890s.

In the spring, the group -- many of them driven by the same dream as Carson -- hopes to sail the boat in the upper bay.

"Part of the dream is going back in the heritage of the people who came here. We become part of the soul of the boat," says Dean Westerman, who works with computers in the Human Engineering Lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The unlikely setting for the boat-building project is a plumbing fixtures warehouse just north of Bel Air,where Peter Steinmetz operates a business.

Steinmetz was approached by Harford Community College to teach a class in boat building this year. While he has no expertise in the subject, he decided to take on the job, using his experience as a hand on a skipjack and his studies of historic construction methods.

The students are using a design of a Sharpie obtained from a book as a guide. But they are also exercising their own creativity in the final design. Steinmetz calls the class "boat by committee."

The "committee" attacks its task with excitement, relishing every part of the experience. The class is divided into teams of four men, each team entirely responsible for a 5-foot section of the boat.

After almost four months of meeting every Tuesday night, the spine of the craft has taken shape. The structure, with its pale, unvarnished wood, looks like a dinosaur's skeleton.

Gil Regan, of Forest Hill, is working on the bow end of the boat. He uses a handsaw to slice out a small section of the keel, where one of the 15 ribs will be placed. The ribs serve as structural supports and are attached to the keel, which is the bottom of the boat. Regan worked at the Naval Academy for three years as a rigger, fitting sails to modern vessels.

Now, he is an education specialist at Aberdeen Proving Grounds ordinance school.

Regan prefers using hand tools on the boat because he thinks they are more precise than power tools.

He signed up for the class because he wanted to gain experience so that he, too, could fulfill a dream: He wants to build his own wooden boat with a kit.

Not everyone in the class uses hand tools. During a recent session, when a visitor stopped by the atmosphere resonated with the intensity of non-stop work. Three men carved a section of one rib with a power saw.

Steinmetz says he doesn't care what type of tools each man uses in his work, as long as each is learning in the process. "I've got 16 people with 16 different needs in the course," he said.

In another room, four men hunched over a table, figuring the dimensions of a rudder from a book. They started to sketch its outline on a thin section of board, trying to determine why one of the dimensions in the book seemed wrong. After several minutes of calculations, they unravelled the knotty problem and resumed sketching. Westerman laughed, "We spend more time trying to figure out what we're doing than actually doing it."

The method the class is pursuing to build the boat is known as "lofting."

Each piece of the boat is drawn to scale on a thin piece of board. The buliders then use those measurements to sketch a design on sheets of brown paper. The drawing is used to sketch cuts on wood for the boat. It sounds tedious, but does not take long.

Cut boards are then coated with a primer to strengthen them. After the primer dries, boards are glued together with epoxy. Every part of the boat is constructed by gluing three pieces of wood together. The process results in stronger finished parts.

Steinmetz said that if the boat were to be made the way Sharpies were built in the 1890s, it would be constructed of heavy wooden timbers. That, however, would make the cost prohibitively expensive. By using thin boards and glue, the materials will cost only about $500.

The project is several weeks ahead of schedule. Steinmetz expects a launch from Havre de Grace early in the spring.

Even before Steinmetz has decided whether he will teach another course, students have begun discussing what kind of boat they want to build next year. They want something even grander than the 20-foot sharpie -- a 50-foot skipjack.

But first they must finish this project, which when complete will be 20 feet long and 5 feet wide, and should weigh about 1,100 pounds. Its single mast will hold 140 square feet of sail. It will be entirely handmade of wood, without a single nail.

Steinmetz says sailing it "will be kind of like riding a tornado on a broomstick."

As a recent class came to an end, Westerman surveyed the room. One of the men swept wood shavings into a large pile. Others put tools away.

Westerman took a drag on his cigarette, smiled and said, "This is the neatest thing I've done in a long time."

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