At St. John's College, they're doing old-style boat building for the simple joy of it

July 18, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

They make an unlikely-looking team: a bespectacled naval architect, a white-haired woodworker in suspenders and a recent college graduate with an earring in her nose.

But they are among the eight students who come together three times a week at St. John's College in Annapolis to build a 19th-century-style wooden rowboat.

Working under the tutelage of 34-year-old boatwright Clark Poston of Harwood, the students are building a replica of an 1898 wherry that provided transportation on rivers in Maine. When they finish their project in mid-August, the 12-foot, flat-keeled boat will be a rowing tender for the Maryland Dove, a full-scale reproduction of a 17th century square rigger.

"It's something I've always been interested in," says one student, Howard Fleck, a consultant from Davidsonville.

Mr. Fleck's wife gave him the tuition for the seven-week course as a 60th birthday present. "It's wonderful," he said after two weeks in the class. "It's the best thing I've done in the summer in a long time."

Working in the wood shop at St. John's College, the students chisel, carve and plane the rugged white oak and the maleable white cedar with a combination of hand tools and power tools. The air smells sweet from the fresh-cut planks.

"It's very much an art form," said Leo Pickens, a St. John's administrator who oversees the class.

Why would someone plunk down $675 to build a rowboat?

"It's like why someone would take a life figure drawing or %J watercolor class," Mr. Pickens replies.

Besides the artistic aspects of the endeavor, some of the students hope to learn how they can build their own boats, notes Mr. Poston, who is teaching the course for the second summer.

Mr. Poston grew up on the water in North Carolina and speaks with the distinctive Elizabethan accent of the Outer Banks. He spent seven years studying and teaching at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and sees both the aesthetics and the practicality of the craft.

Walter Sheffield of Severna Park spent his life as a woodworker and cabinet maker, but he says he has learned a few things about boat building in the St. John's course.

Bruce Nehrling, who teaches naval architecture at the Naval Academy, enrolled in the class for fun and was finding that designing boats and building boats are different. Accustomed to helping design towboats and combat vessels up to 600 feet long, Mr. Nehrling struggled to figure out why a half-inch gap had appeared between the keel and the supporting frame of the wherry.

The only woman in the class, 22-year-old Cameron Hall, who graduated from St. John's in May, said she signed up for the course because of the creative aspects of the task.

"I like the idea of building a complete thing all the way," she says.

Mr. Pickens and Mr. Poston hope eventually to expand the course and revive the boat-building program St. John's offered in the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Pickens says the program would fit well with the liberal arts curriculum of the small college.

"Actual hands-on work is good for students who spend so much time in intellectual labor," he says.

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