Wooden boat and iron will

Architect slowly restores a piece of history

December 12, 2007|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,Special to the Sun

When Ellicott City resident Jack Zuraw had his boat docked on the Wicomico River, people would stop and stare, wondering exactly what they were seeing. The Jolly Dolphin is a 49-year-old three-sail bateau - a traditional Chesapeake Bay boat related to the skipjack - that is rarely seen today.

Said Zuraw: "It's opened up conversations with folks who walk up and say, `Oh, yeah. I remember that boat from back'" when it sailed the bay.

Abandoned by a previous owner, the boat had fallen into disrepair. Zuraw, a self-employed commercial architect, saw the Jolly Dolphin on the Internet and bought it for $10,000 in July. The boat is the work of Chesapeake Bay craftsman James Richardson.

Zuraw, 54, hopes that by restoring it, he is preserving a piece of local history.

Victor MacSorley is chairman of the board of trustees of the James B. Richardson Foundation, which runs the Richardson Maritime Museum in Cambridge. "Jim is sort of nationally known as a wooden boat builder," he said. " ... His boats from the '50s and '60s, and even some he worked on in the '30s and '40s, are still sailing."

Richardson built a replica of the 1634 trade vessel the Dove, now in St. Mary's City. He built the Jolly Dolphin for a Delaware doctor and his family.

Boats of the 1950s were not mass-produced, so certain styles were regional. Zuraw describes the Jolly Dolphin as "a good example of a Chesapeake Bay workboat adaptation [to a] pleasure boat."

The connection between architecture and boat work is a natural one for Zuraw. After college, he worked on a building-preservation program in Nantucket, R.I. He said that being in Nantucket "exposed me to some really nifty wooden boats and the idea of wooden boats."

Over the years, Zuraw has built a 20-foot catboat and restored a semi-dory that his wife's grandfather built in the 1960s. The Jolly Dolphin is his largest project.

He tries to work on the boat at least three times a week. "I think it will be several stages, so giving an end date would be very hard," said Zuraw, who hopes to do the topside restoration work about a year from now.

With restoration work, "you're seeing how another boat builder or carpenter put materials together," Zuraw said. "With the Dolphin, it's ... fascinating to get an understanding of how [Richardson] joined pieces of wood together that would keep water out."

The Jolly Dolphin is docked at Zuraw's friends' home on the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County. Although he originally hoped to concentrate on cosmetic work, Zuraw discovered that the boat is taking in about 15 gallons of water an hour. His first priority is to "stabilize it, so it doesn't deteriorate any further" and stop the water from coming in, he said. There is an electric pump running constantly, and there are two battery-powered backup pumps.

Donna Mennitto, Zuraw's wife, said he "can be very single-minded and stubborn, and sometimes that's what it takes. He's really drawn to the craft involved" in restoration and boat work.

Like most boats built for the Chesapeake, the Jolly Dolphin can float in water as shallow as 46 inches. Three-sail bateaus like the Jolly Dolphin are similar to skipjacks, but have three smaller sails. Zuraw said that the sails have more handwork than modern boats. "It hearkens back to the old style of how things were done," he said, allowing two people to sail the boat, even though it is 42 feet on deck.

Also typical of handcrafted boats, the Jolly Dolphin has some mechanisms that may predate its construction.

"This steering gear is so authentic," Zuraw said, explaining that boatmen often stripped older boats of their machinery. "After the wood fell apart, they would take stuff from the old boats they could use" to save money, he said. "It's kind of a tie to the old workboat ethic. The old hardware was not discarded."

As he works on the boat, Zuraw has found that "it's hard ... to stay focused on one thing at a time, because there are so many things that need to be done," such as repairing the rot in the cabin sides. He estimates that the complete restoration could cost $50,000.

This spring, he hopes to bring the Jolly Dolphin to the Ruark Boatworks in Cambridge, which is part of the Richardson Foundation, where the bottom of the boat can be repaired. Because the facility is part of a teaching museum, it charges a donation rather than the going rate for boat restoration.

MacSorley said the Jolly Dolphin is "one of the few remaining [Richardson] boats around. If they're not maintained every year, pulled and painted and taken care of, they just rot away."

For now, Zuraw's friends, David Clayton and Barbara Norman, will help him work on the boat, while it is docked at their Severna Park home. "When you sit on the deck there, you're really like a part of something that's no longer around," said Norman.

Mennitto said this sense of history is one of the reasons that she agreed to buy the Jolly Dolphin. "Whatever work or money we put into this boat would be toward something bigger than ourselves. It's not just fixing up a boat so you have a nice boat to go out in," she said. "We're working on a historical artifact, and we're preserving it for a while longer."

Zuraw said he is considering donating the restored vessel to the Richardson Museum eventually, "so that Richardson's legacy hopefully could be carried on."

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