Boat Project Bonds Community, Families

February 05, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The massive Douglas fir log rests on three sawhorses and stretches nearly the full length of the barn on a hill in Deale. It's good, strong timber, and it will form the backbone of the boat.

Zachary Bastwalks the length of the log, north to south, guiding the electric router as it whines and shaves a channel. This to begin smoothing the timber for the keelson of a narrow 39-foot workboat called a draketail.

The Edgewater boy is 12. After walking the full length of the timber and exposing a pale ribbon of wood along the top, his father speaks to him softly.

"Listen to your tool, as it winds up, you hear that high pitch?" asks Grant Bast, a carpenter by trade who has built several boats. "You may have to slow up."

Four generations of South County people will meet just about every day for the rest of the year at Grace Ann Gray's barn, the one where the llamas, peacocks and sheep roam and the white Great Pyrenees dog sits in the yard, serene as a snowdrift.

Inside the barn, a gas heater staves off the chill as sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers gather around the big, old timber and together launch a journey.

The Draketail Project is the creation of Robert Besse, an anthropologist who has traveled from one end of the United States to the other and now makes his home a few yards from the Chesapeake Bay in Snug Harbor.

Besse holds a doctorate in anthropology-human ecology from the University of Illinois. The project -- with an estimated $1 million budget for salaries and materials through 1993 -- is being supported by government and private grants.

The project is a study, the barn in Deale a sort of laboratory.

Besse hopes that in this place, over the next nine months or so, the 55 youngsters who build this 1920s-style Chesapeake Bay oyster and crab boat will begin to grasp the connections between things. Between one generation and another,between the value of work and the value of themselves, between themselves and the community, between the community and the bay that floats the boat.

"The Draketail Project is fundamentally about values,"Besse wrote in his project proposal. "The (new) old Chesapeake boatswill be the symbols of a higher order of values."

Besse argues that community, the values of hard work and the links between one generation and another have been eroded over the last 30 years by "divorce, distance, commercial pressures and mobility." Children have suffered by this, he says, and the loss has been reflected in, among other areas, their falling performance in school.

"I think the benefits of this project are way beyond just building a boat," said Jack FitzSimmonds of West River, who will be working in the barn alongside his 11-year-old daughter, Lyda. He hopes his daughter begins to understandthe boat's "connection to the community and the connection to the way this community got to be the way it is."

In the barn the day before, FitzSimmonds said he watched one little girl learn to drive a nail, her tentative hammer strokes becoming more and more assured untilshe drove it home straight and true.

"The kids are the ones who are going to make this project," he said.

His daughter, a pupil at Southern Middle School in Lothian, was not talking about high-flown sociological concepts as she stood at the workbench and sanded a leg for a small worktable.

"I like it because I like building things," she said. "It sounded like a good idea."

The 55 youngsters betweenthe ages of 9 and 16 were chosen from four South County schools: Southern High, South River High, Central Middle and Southern Middle. Many of the children come from families rooted in the life of the bay.

"Me and my Dad have had a crab boat for a while," said Bob Howlin III of Mayo, a 16-year-old who attends South River High. "I've always been interested in workboats."

Robert Dorsey of Edgewater said hisdaughter, Melissa, has been guild-net fishing since she was 4. She's11, a pupil at Central Middle, and holds licenses for guild-net fishing, oystering and crab pots. Dorsey, who owns a construction company, said he does crabbing as a sideline, following in the footsteps of his father, Bill, who was a waterman.

Dorsey said he'll be workingalongside Melissa on the draketail, and "when I'm not here, my father's going to be here."

The children will have expert guidance fromthe likes of John Gregory, an 80-year-old Shady Side boatwright who has been building boats for 60 years. Other veteran boat builders from Galesville, Cumberstone and Deale have also volunteered.

The youngsters are asked to put in two hours a day twice a week. Each has been given a draketail logbook to use to write about the experience. The logs will form the record of a historic event, as it will be the first draketail built on Maryland's Western Shore in at least 50 years,Besse said.

When the boat is completed at year's end, the projectwill shift to activities on the water. Children will use the boat toexplore the bay and learn about boating, marine science and ecology.

For now, though, there is just the backbone: a great sturdy timber and a willing crew.

"A tremendous amount of work lies ahead," Besse said.

Anne Arundel County Sun reporter Arthur Hirsch will be following the Draketail Project throughout the year.

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