Building My First Boat
Growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland we all knew about boats. My father and many of his watermen cousins built their boats. He constructed a Hacker design runabout with a Hall Scott engine that was the fastest boat on the Tred Avon River in 1929. My ancestors had set up one of the earliest Maryland colonial shipyards back in 1679. Through the decades close relatives served in privateers and warships in various wars for the United States and even for the Confederate states. We all learned early that boats are like ladies. Love them, and they will love you back!
So in 1958 when I came home for the holidays during my sophomore year in boarding school, I asked if I could get a twelve-footer like the other boys so I could learn the rivers, not to mention to impress the girls. My father looked at me remembering his own youth and with a wink said, “Tommy, your mother and I will get you a boat but you’ll have to build it.” With that challenge I sent for all the kit boat catalogs and spent much time that spring perusing them. We selected the Topper kit, a 12-foot outboard from Custom Craft Boats in Buffalo, New York. My father said it contained higher quality wood but might be harder to build than the other kits.
Needless to say, two weeks after I came home for summer vacation, a huge 12’ long box arrived by truck freight and sat on the colonial herringbone bricks in front of our home. The carton contained long strips of fine marine wood, large plywood bottom and side panels, boxes of Monel fasteners and tubs of Weldwood glue, as well as instruction manuals.
To build her I had to set up the frames and keel and make them plumb or square. That required leveling everything and making sure the frames fit accurately with the keel. The beautiful Douglas fir transom had to be attached as part of this process.
Then came the real challenge. I discovered why my father thought this boat would be hard to build. In the other kits, the manufacturer had pre-cut the frames but provided cheaper wood. My boat had the high-quality wood all right but it had to be finished by hand. A boat without careful framing would not hold up in rough seas. I must say I sweated a lot those long weeks filing down the wooden parts so they would fit snugly and to my father’s satisfaction. The challenge wasn’t over. Many of the wood parts had to be bent. Much to my mother’s consternation, the tubs in the bathrooms of our house were used to soak the parts in hot water so they would bend. Then a maze of clamps was used to keep these pieces in place while they were glued and fastened, working bow to stern.
The next challenge was fitting the large flat plywood planks over the framed skeleton. These panels were 12’ long and unwilling to bend easily for a young boat builder. One day though I received a great honor when my cousin, Lowndes Johnson, the designer of the Comet Class sailboat, walked up the back lane to my house. His white hair peeked out under his cloth hat, and he was dressed as usual in his work clothes and brown sneakers. He grinned with mischief and held out a couple of large paint-encrusted “C” clamps from his boatyard shop. He said, “Tommy, I thought you could use these.” Cousin Lowndes and I worked together all that morning in the hot sun figuring out a good clamping scheme to secure those plywood rascals.
A final trial was finding an engine. I had some funds from my grass-cutting jobs, and I looked at the various newspaper ads, finally finding a TD15 Johnson 5 hp that had seen much better days. It ran up about 75% revolutions maximum but it fit my budget. The old farmer who sold it to me said that he had caught a lot of rockfish using it, but he couldn’t be sure how much longer it would run.
We launched a week later. Another cousin carried my boat to Easton Point in his long-bed Ford pickup. With the help of my oldest brother, who was home from the Army, we put her over. The extra gas sat in the bow in a Wolf’s Head 5-gallon oil can that a mechanic friend had given me. We cranked her up and she planed pretty well running on the Tred Avon River.
That runabout with its accurate bevels lasted a long time. My brother used it after me, and it was still afloat 30 years ago, used as a utility in a Crisfield boatyard. The best we got from her was 17 knots using a Mercury high-rev five. It’s hard to explain the love between a man and his boat. I know I will never forget that first build. I can tell you also that framed in my memory is the pleasure I received that summer of living up to the boat-building heritage of my family.