Wooden boat-making course passes on maritime tradition

November 08, 1992|By Charlotte Moler | Charlotte Moler,Contributing Writer

It's a bit like a nautical version of Santa's workshop along the Havre de Grace waterfront.

In the abandoned Seneca Cannery on St. Johns Street, 11 boats in various stages of construction lie about the cavernous basement, where 36 men drill and chisel and saw wood, generating mountains of sawdust.

They gather here on Tuesday evenings to learn the Chesapeake Bay tradition of building wooden boats in a 12-week course offered through Harford Community College.

Peter Steinmetz, a skipjack sailor who came up with the idea for the course, teaches it with two others. They need no textbook and no classroom for this hands-on class, and they're more likely to be found ripping lumber than lecturing.

Mr. Steinmetz doesn't like to be called a boat-building expert. Rather, he sees himself as a catalyst for the revival of the wooden boat-building tradition.

"These traditions must be passed on," he says.

"And most of what I've learned is not in books."

So what makes a good boat-builder?

"You don't have to be a master carpenter," Mr. Steinmetz says. But the craft does require lots of patience and persistence, since it takes an average of a year to build a wooden boat.

"It also helps to be crazy and poor," says Wayne Goodman, a student. "I can't wait to experience the feeling of going out on the water in a boat I built myself," the engineering technician at Aberdeen Proving Ground says, poring over plans for a racing shell he's building.

The students work on boats they're building for themselves as well as restorations commissioned by private boat owners and maritime organizations.

Among the projects: an 18-foot Greenland kayak, two ultra-light canoes and a 10-foot dinghy. One of the handsome finished boats on display is "Class Act," the aptly named Chesapeake Bay Sharpie built by members of the first class in 1990.

People with varying skill levels sign up for the course, but Mr. Steinmetz is up to the challenge of teaching such a diverse group. "There's 36 students and 36 reasons why they're here, so I have to make it work," he says.

"My teaching style is one of beneficent neglect. I give them the basics, then leave them alone. If they need help, they'll come to one of the instructors or ask a more experienced student."

A glance around the workshop proves the students are indeed left alone to get down to the nitty-gritty of boat-building.

In one corner, a young man calmly sands a mast while another sends wood chips flying as he furiously chisels away at some knotty problem with his canoe. Someone calls for a power drill, raising his voice above the high-pitched whine of the table saw, where two men rip 2-by-4s for their rowing wherry.

At the other end of the room, men speak of the finer points of a dinghy design. One of them begins drawing the plan on a huge lofting board covering the thick stone wall.

Jack Bosen, a member of the first class and now an instructor, says the class tries to use wood available locally, usually fir or pine. The boat designs come from catalogs or from the students.

Students and instructors first do a full-scale drawing of the boat on the lofting board, then build the wooden mold. The boat may have a steam-bent frame, in which wood is placed in a steam box and bent to shape. Or it may be built of long strips of wood.

"Here's a strip-built canoe. Isn't it a beauty?" Mr. Steinmetz says, running his hand along the sleek wood. "There's something pleasing, almost sensuous, about a woodenboat. Most commercially made boats are from fiberglass or wood composite."

Mr. Steinmetz had long dreamed of starting a boat-building workshop, and he credits Harford Community College for helping him launch the course. "The college gave the class credibility, a marketing arm and insurance," he explains.

Kay Starnes, HCC's community services director, recalls Mr. Steinmetz approaching her with the course idea in 1990. "It took off right away," she says.

"They started with 16 students and one boat."

The word spread quickly through the maritime community. "Now we even get calls from out of state about the course," Ms. Starnes adds.

A core of students from the first HCC session joined Mr. Steinmetz to form the Chesapeake Wooden Boat-builders, who restore and build boats on commission. The group now works with the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum as part of a formal agreement.

The Chesapeake group participates in Maritime Museum events such as the Antique Boat Show and Maritime Heritage Days, and the college supplies fliers and other marketing tools.

Plans for the boat-building class include Mr. Steinmetz' own design for a scaled-down skipjack that could be raced locally. He also would like to offer a class for families, so children can get involved.

"That way," he says, "I know it's being passed down to the next generation."

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