Master craftsman teaches youngsters as they build a boat

ALL FOR THE LOVE OF KIDS

May 30, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

John Gregory had built many boats in his 80 years, but this was different. When he slouched into the barn in southern Anne Arundel County that winter morning with his tools in a wooden box and his wire-rims perched on his nose, he faced one of the more motley boatbuilding crews ever assembled on the Chesapeake Bay.

He slid open the barn door, walked in without a word and saw a barn full of about 40 children, some parents, and hardly a one of them knowing a keelson from a chine. They figured on constructing a 39-foot workboat, a boat first built in the days when watermen thrived on the bay, when Mr. Gregory built boats and raced under sail on the West River.

For months the gentle man from Shady Side spoke barely above a whisper as he shared nuances of a craft that humbles those who think they know it all. Mr. Gregory wanted no glory and sought no reward apart from a job well done.

Today the boat is afloat, fitted with brass and bronze and an oiled deck of Douglas fir. Today the Draketail Maritime Project -- the brainchild of an anthropologist with a vision of education as a thrilling expedition -- enters a new phase of life. Today John Gregory goes down in local maritime lore as the name of the first Hooper's Island draketail workboat built on the bay in more than 50 years.

"Considering, well, having children work on it and some of the parents work on it, me work on it a little bit, well, it looks pretty good," Mr. Gregory said Thursday. "I'm well satisfied."

Asked about having his name on the boat, Mr. Gregory responded in his usual self-effacing style: "I wished it hadn't been. It should have been named after one of the children or a girl. It shouldn't be named after a man. . . . There's nothing you can do about it. They wouldn't change it."

No, too late for that now. His name is carved on mahogany, painted gold and mounted on the distinctive curved stern of the draketail. In aceremony this afternoon in Galesville, the John Gregory will be christened as a research vessel as the 18-month-old Draketail Maritime Project shifts its spotlight from boatbuilding to marine sciences.

But that was always the point, said anthropologist and project director, Robert Besse, who lives in Snug Harbor. The boat was always just the bait to excite children about learning. Draketail Project youngsters learned about oceanography, ecology, navigation and marine biology. They took classes at the Naval Academy and have learned oceanographic sampling techniques aboard another draketail, the Mary E, which was donated to the project.

Supported until now by some $200,000 in grants and contributions of tools and equipment, the project recently won a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Labor Department. Dr. Besse this summer is submitting grant applications to federal agencies and private foundations totaling $1 million to help develop a science center in Churchton and to pay staff salaries.

At the center of it all for those months at the barn in Deale was the wooden skeleton of a draketail, a long, skinny boat popular among watermen in the 1920s and '30s, named for the passing resemblance its elliptical stern has to a duck's rear end. For weeks the crew planed a massive fir timber to make the keelson, or spine;for months they struggled with the tedious work of planking the hull. It was rough going, and when they bogged down in the final months, professional carpenters had to be hired to finish the job.

"I learned that there's no straight lines on a boat, it's all curves or angles" said Tom Craig, 15, a freshman at South River High School in Edgewater. "I guess that's what makes it fun, nothing's easy."

Tom is one of 15 students from the original 50 who have stayed with the project the whole way, since January 1991. His 11-year-old-brother, Joe Craig, came aboard just a few weeks later. Joe he said he's looking forward to "that oceanography stuff," although "navigation is kind of hard for me. I'm only 11."

What was it like working under the exacting eye of Mr. Gregory, the former Navy Yard carpenter who built about 18 boats in his time, including the first Chesapeake 20, a fleet, single-masted racing boat?

It was an education, said Kirt Barbee, a carpenter whose girlfriend's son took part in the project.

"I kid about measuring down to two one-thousandths of an inch, but he does," said Mr. Barbee. "He's an old craftsman, very proud of his work."

You'd hardly know that to talk to Mr. Gregory. He'd have you believe that Dr. Besse conned him into the whole thing, then compounded the injury by insisting that the boat bear his name.

"It's no big deal, the boat," said Mr. Gregory. "It's just a boat, that's all. I enjoyed doing it, in fact I always wanted to build [a draketail]."

He'll be 82 in September and he's not sure he'll build any more boats. But the John Gregory will go on, carrying youngsters on expeditions this summer to Havre de Grace, Virginia, Smith Island and Hooper Island. The project, said Dr. Besse "is just barely at the threshold. . . . I don't want people to think this is a done deal."

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