Workboat renewal with a master's aid

Harold Ruark, 85, wants to pass his skills to volunteers

January 16, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

CAMBRIDGE -- Master boat builder Harold Ruark eyes the 10 volunteers who have gathered in the old basket factory, then nods his head and pronounces them an impressive group - a couple of building contractors, a cabinetmaker, an engineer or two, a machinist, even a retired naval architect.

Trouble is, as earnest and eager as they are to get started refurbishing a half-century-old dovetail waterman's workboat, not a one of them knows anything about boat building.

That's where the 85-year-old Ruark comes in. After 50 years of building and designing wooden boats in Cambridge, where the craft dates to the 1600s, Ruark aims to pass along skills he began learning as a child from his father and great-grandfather.

Ruark, who says he's "deaf as a post" but otherwise able, will supervise as most of the work is completed by his crew of retired and semiretired volunteers in the 100-year-old building that bears his name, the Harold Ruark Boatworks.

"There's nothing in the world more complicated than a wooden boat, if you do it right, but there's nothing like taking a pile of wood and making it a beautiful boat," says Ruark, who has built everything from work boats to small freight vessels, and pilot rescue boats during a stint in the Navy during World War II.

The two-story frame factory building, where workers once made baskets for shipping fruit and vegetables from the Eastern Shore, is set to become the cornerstone of an elaborate waterfront museum and cultural center.

The center will be part of the Richardson Maritime Museum, which is housed in an old bank building downtown. The museum is named for another of Ruark's mentors, James B. "Mr. Jim" Richardson.

Victor McSorley is chairman of the foundation that oversees the boat-works building, its 4-acre waterfront site and the maritime museum downtown. He says restoration of the 38-foot, diesel-powered dovetail, which rests on wood blocks in the middle of the drafty factory building, seemed a good first step as the organization works to raise an estimated $7 million to complete the ambitious waterfront center.

"As much as anything else, it is Harold's skills that we're trying to preserve here," says McSorley, a contractor who specializes in restoring historic homes. "Harold's name and reputation really mean something around here. With his leadership, a wooden boat like this dovetail is almost a sculpture, a work of art."

Organizers hope the boat - which needs a complete overhaul - will serve as a hands-on classroom where gifted amateurs learn. The idea is that they will carry on a boat-building and refurbishing tradition that Ruark remembers along the shores of Cambridge Creek - land now occupied by a half-dozen condominium developments.

"I'd say I'm gainfully unemployed," says Herm Kramer, 72, a retired engineering sales representative who lives in a house he restored in Cambridge's historic West End. "I've been involved with the maritime museum, so this is a good crossover, a natural extension. It's interesting work."

Like Kramer and most of the others who turned out one day last week to hear Ruark's ideas for the restoration, Dan Cada thinks his work experience will be a good fit. A naval architect who retired to Cambridge in 1995, Cada began working a second career as a cabinetmaker. At 64, he is a youngster among the group of volunteers.

"With my background, you can ask me about gun ports or air-conditioning ducts on ships or how to do kitchen cabinets - I just don't know how to lay the planks on a boat," said Cada. "There are some highly skilled people around here who're very willing to work, but Harold's challenge is to teach us how to take straight boards and bend them into boats."

More than a decade ago, Ruark designed the skipjack The Nathan of Dorchester, a 45-foot oyster dredge boat. Built by his cousin, Buddy Ruark, The Nathan is now run by a private foundation and has served as a ceremonial and educational vessel in the Chesapeake Bay region since 1994.

"I guess I got started when I built a 12- to 14-foot sailboat with my dad when I was 6 or 7," Ruark said. "But it was Mr. Jim Richardson who gave me my first paying job at his boatyard - about $9 a week. I've never completely stopped."

Ruark, who is also known for the intricate model boats he has built over the years, will have some experienced help on the dovetail restoration - from fellow boat builder Ronald McGlaughlin, 80.

"I think I built my first boat in the '40s, my last boat in 1988, surely 100 or more through the years," says McGlaughlin, who grew up building boats on Hooper Island.

He says he's happy to be part of the dovetail restoration.

"I've been knowing Harold for years and years," McGlaughlin says. "He's getting right ancient, and he felt like he needed a little help."

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