REEDVILLE—Two of the retired Northern Neck residents who come twice a week to build boats from planks of juniper, oak and fir were frowning as they studied the propeller before them.
Surrounded by wood shavings and the sound of sanding in the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum boat shop in Northumberland County, Egbert Dees and Pete Kauneckas were taking measurements of the angle and length of the driveshaft descending from the boat’s motor.
The Spat II is what Chesapeake Bay waterman call a pushboat or yawl boat. It’s basically a floating motor that can be used to power the wind-powered skipjacks that have dredged oysters on the estuary for generations.
The boat shop volunteers are replicating a boat called Spat I, which for more than 20 years has powered or been hauled up on davits at the rear of the skipjack called the Claude W. Somers. That sailboat is the museum’s working exhibit which, when there’s not a pandemic, takes visitors out onto the Bay to show how watermen dredged oysters on the shallow-drafted boats.
The boat shop is powered by a group of older gentlemen who moved to the Northern Neck from elsewhere. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, there’s a gaggle of between seven and a dozen woodworking retirees.
Now that the Fishermen’s Museum has reopened, visitors can once again peek into the shop to see boats being crafted the way they have been for generations, albeit with some new materials and technology.
I was interested in seeing Spat II—named for an oyster larvae that’s attached to a surface—because pushboats are rarely ever built anymore.
The Last Skipjacks Project, an effort to keep track of the dwindling numbers of the historic oyster-harvesting sailboats, notes that because wind is notoriously fickle, skipjacks have long used pushboats to help them out.
According to the website, pushboats were so efficient in helping skipjacks harvest oysters that Maryland put limits on their use to keep oyster beds from being depleted. Initially, no oyster dredging under power was allowed, though when the oyster harvest diminished in the 1960s, dredging was allowed two days a week.
They were made to be raised out of the water so the oyster police could tell when dredging under power was happening, and when it wasn’t.
“Today, the website states, “it is a rare sight to see a skipjack dredging under sail.”
Dees and Kauneckas said they wanted to have Spat II be as historically accurate as possible, while still making it functional and easy to maintain.
So instead of the planked hull of the original, the boat shop crew crafted the new one from plywood, using fiberglass to cover the seams before painting it white.
Over the six months or so it took to build, a new 42-horsepower engine was installed, a new engine box fitted and a specially constructed fuel tank made at a nearby metal shop.
Dees said the crew was probably being historically accurate because they operated without construction plans. Instead, they took measurements from Spat I and then began replicating it piece by piece.
Bill Turville, who works with another group of volunteers building a plank-hulled skiff in a corner of the shop, said watermen built their own skiffs and small boats years ago. He said they would often let the planks that were available dictate the size of the vessel, then used techniques passed on from builder to builder.
“We joke about it, but there was a sense among those builders that they let the wood go as it would,” he said.
While the guys in the boat shop may use things such as epoxy or pieces of fiberglass when they can really help, Turville said they’re being historically accurate, if you look at it in a certain way.
Turville said the boat shop crew watched an accomplished boatbuilder use something like modern epoxy to seal a spot on the hull.
“He pointed out that builders back in the earlier days would use the best materials available to them then, and that’s what he’s doing now,” said Turville. “That means you don’t have to go back to using pine tar when that’s certainly not the best material available today.”
On a subsequent visit to the museum, it was good to see Spat II hanging at the stern of the Claude W. Somers, awaiting the days when visitors might again be able to motor out into the Bay for a special experience.
Museum Director Lee Langston-Harrison said the museum is using new protocols that keep visitors spaced apart and in limited numbers in the museum space itself.
“We have a film they watch as they cycle through, and we ask that groups that travel here together to stay together in groups as they move through the museum,” she said. “The timing of the film gives us a natural way to keep groups apart.”
Visitors are also able to take a quick peak into the boat shop to get a taste of what it’s like to craft Chesapeake Bay boats from wood.
For more information on the museum, go online to rfmuseum.org.
Rob Hedelt is a Free Lance-Star columnist.