Miss Clamdigger, Part 1

Lines drawings for Miss Clamdigger ( aka Sprite), designed by Atkin & Co

I invented a motto when I started out as an artist that continues to inform most everything I do or make: All vessels originate with an imagined voyage. The motto flows naturally from my lifelong obsession with wooden boats, whose deep history and continually evolving technology are foundational to my development as a craftsman, regardless of the material or context at hand.

While my preferred medium is wood, my work as a sculptor and artisan/designer takes many forms, almost always as public art- cast bronze, welded aluminum, cast GFRC and FRP, ceramic enamel and glazed ceramic lenticular murals. Whatever my current project, I’m always simultaneously dreaming of building a boat, studying plans, hunting for obscure texts and histories. In many ways, I think of the boat-dreaming as the ‘real work’, and it often has profound impact on the forms I’m commissioned to make in cities across the country. This impact is not necessarily visually evident, but is more like an ethos, more of an approach to making. I can trace this ethos most directly to the working craft of the Eastern Seaboard where I grew up- clam skiffs, lobster boats, lifeguard boats and seabright skiffs, marina launches, fishing and utility boats. The common, often home built boats I loved as a kid just seem to belong on the waterways of their origin, timeless in their purpose, elegant in their simplicity. Also, their proportions and methods of construction say as much about local material streams, know-how and resources, as they do of the conditions of weather, wind and wave. I’ve tried to internalize this ethos, and codify it into a set of principles applicable to everything I make. I call this set of principles Deep Craft.

Looking back, it appears that I build a boat about every twenty-five years. I’ve built two so far, each one marking a significant time in my life, the focus required of boat-building serving as a kind of meditation or even as a rite-of-passage. I built the first boat with the help of my now wife when we first met in the late 1980s. We were living in a one-room cabin perched on a sea wall on the Eastern bank of the Hudson River near Hyde Park. I was apprenticing with a traditional house builder nearby and salvaged wood and hardware for the boat from a modified, timber-frame house we were building further north in Germantown. The boat was a flat-bottomed sharpie for oar and sail based on a design by Steve Redmond. I was drawn to the design for its simplicity, versatility and light weight, perfect for car-top gunkholing on the Hudson and on nearby bays and coastal estuaries. With an LOA of 15’-6” and 42” beam, the design was also perfectly suited for construction on our long and narrow front porch overlooking the Hudson. The boat’s lithe proportions promised speed under oar and nimble handling under sprit-sail, leeboard and rudder.

Calabash, a 16′ lightweight rowing/sailing sharpie

Most important, my newfound love and I got to know each other as the boat took shape over the course of about six months of evenings and weekends working together. It became emblematic of our bond and the optimism and enthusiasm we shared for our future lives together. I named her Calabash, slang for ‘girlfriend’ in the West Indies. We launched her one summer evening directly from the porch into the slack tide of the Hudson directly below, lowered by ropes and pulleys from the rafters of our porch. For our maiden voyage we rowed Calabash ten miles north on the Hudson to Rhinecliff and back with the changing tide. We married in late summer of the same year and took Calabash along on our honeymoon on the Jersey Shore, dreaming of circumnavigating Brigantine Island. When we moved to Providence, RI the following year we sailed Calabash around the urban edges of Narragensett Bay and along the shallow shores of Point Judith Pond, beaching on mudflats to picnic and snooze. Like a tiny Navy, we became expert deckhands, captains and crew, knowing just where and how to sit for optimal trim and balance, when to point upwind and how to ride a following sea. The boat became like our first real home during our nomadic early years together, eventually following us cross-country to California.

Calabash in her current incarnation, on the banks of Tomales Bay, CA

Fast forward twenty-seven years. We still have Calabash and use her primarily for single-handed rowing on Tomales Bay near the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco. The conditions on our primary waterways nearby, Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay, are much rougher than those to which we were accustomed on the East Coast. The water and air here are much colder, winds stronger and more constant, tides more swift, with steep and frequent wind waves and white caps. Calabash is better suited to mellower conditions, but she still makes for a lively and able rowing skiff when single-handed in rougher seas, despite her age and delicate disposition.

I’ve been dreaming of building a boat better suited to our local conditions since we moved our home and studios from Oakland to the Sonoma Coast just over ten years ago. I imagined a small but seaworthy craft for fishing, crabbing, and exploring the remote beaches along Point Reyes. Ideally, the boat could handle the occasional passage offshore under favorable conditions when the salmon are running. I vacillated between a traditional Dory, after John Gardner, and something more like a traditionally planked seabright skiff, like those developed post-war by William and John Atkin. I now had a full woodshop and the space to build a larger and more ambitious boat. I even had the trees to mill, a barn to dry the wood, and a good friend with a woodmizer to do the milling. I just lacked the dedicated time.

I felled and milled a split trunk incense cedar from our property for the planking

Whether skiff or dory, I knew I would be building a lapstake hull between 14’-16’ LOA, so a couple of years ago I had the foresight to fell and mill an incense cedar tree that grew on our property, and neatly stickered the full width planks for drying in the barn. Incense cedar is not thought to be a preferred wood for boatbuilding, but the grain was tight and resinous, knots free of bark, and the wood had surprising flexibility and stability across the grain. Plus, the tree grew and matured on our land, was essentially free, and was perfectly dimensioned for planking a small boat, so it had ample intrinsic value. The trunk of the tree even grew in a slight S-curve, so the grain followed the contours of a typical lapstrake plank. My daughter and I used some of the shabbier boards to build a chicken coup during her summer break from college, in order to test the material for strength and workability. We found it to be remarkably supple, strong but very light, and not prone to cupping, splitting or twisting. I’m certain that slowly air-drying the material in our cool, shady barn added to its performance.

Around the same time as building the chicken coup, we decided to sell our sailboat, which we had kept at the Berkeley Marina for several years as a sort of floating crash pad for excursions into town, our own ‘pied a mer’. We had not been using the boat enough to warrant paying the dock fees, so decided it best to localize our energies and not spend beyond our current needs. I decided to sell the boat, a 1978 Hunter 25, without the motor, which I had recently purchased new and had only run for 10-12 hours. It’s a 6 HP Yamaha long shaft outboard, which would be perfect to power the small boat I had in mind. Having the motor on hand, along with air-dried planks in the barn, helped me to narrow my search for the proper boat to build. I carefully studied Gardner’s flat iron skiff and other dories modified for outboard power, but they all seemed to compromise the performance of rowing or sailing, without adding much to performance under power. Then I stumbled upon an article by Mike O’Brien in Boat Design Quarterly #4 from 1993. The article profiles Sprite, a flat-bottomed outboard boat by Atkin & Company. I had seen the boat plans before, but Mike emphasized aspects of its design that held more resonance for me now. The Atkins designed Sprite for maximal stability and performance for 6 hp, capable of handling rough water. At about 14’-10” LOA and 4’-10” beam, the plans would make perfect use of my 16’ cedar planking. I wrote to Pat Atkin and purchased a set of plans, not sure if/when I would have time to build the boat despite my material readiness.

My dad in Westbrook, CT, when he was in medical school, 1959

Also around the same time as building the chicken coup, my aging dad was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. A retired family doctor, he had been living on his own since the sudden death of my mother about six years prior. He was otherwise healthy and has a family history of longevity, so my siblings and I were all quite unprepared for this tragic turn. He was given anywhere from three weeks to three months to live, and was put under immediate hospice care in his home. I traveled to Philadelphia to help my siblings navigate next steps, and essentially to say goodbye to my dad. There was not really anything any of us could do as he slowly lost his ability to move or to take care of himself, which was shear torture. It seemed a blessing and a curse that his mind remained sporadically sharp. He lost the ability to talk, but knew the date, could recognize people, and retained his signature composure and quiet dignity. We were all devastated. I returned home to California but had difficulty concentrating on my work and needed to postpone or delay current projects. Three months came and went and my dad’s vital signs remained strong; he was in stable, if slowly failing, condition. The doctors stopped trying to put a timeline on his eventual death, although they agreed it was highly unlikely he could live out the year (this was at the end of July).

I decided it was time to build the boat, as much for me as for my dad. If he was going to hold on for dear life, and as long as his mind and sensory perception were functioning, I would give him something to think about and help to send him on his way. Building the boat would also show him that I was OK, that life was moving forward, and that he taught me well. He appreciated small boats as much as me and was an accomplished oarsman as a lifeguard in his youth. We were both certified in ‘Basic Seamanship’ by the Coast Guard Auxiliary when I was a teenager, and spent summers exploring and fishing the back bays of South Jersey in our Boston Whaler. I calculated that if my dad could hold on for another couple of months, I could probably have the boat ready to launch by the end of October, or Thanksgiving at the latest. I would build the boat solo, and could realistically devote 2-3 days a week to the endeavor.

Joanie, my mom, the original Miss Clamdigger, 1971

Before lofting the offsets I decided to name my boat Miss Clamdigger, in honor of my mother, who was crowned Miss Clamdigger in Westbrook, Connecticut as a teenager in the early 1950’s. She grew up on Long Island Sound just up the coast from Noroton, where the Atkins drew the plans for my boat in 1953. I reasoned that small wooden utility skiffs like Miss Clamdigger were once ubiquitous along the shores of Long Island Sound, and had similar merits as my mother- good-looking, reliable, stable, low maintenance, elegant but practical, fun. I knew I would be thinking of both of my parents as I built Miss Clamdigger, remembering their stories, their laughter, friendship and wisdom, and feeling thankful for all that they gave me, including a sensitivity to the beauty of traditional wooden boats. I sharpened my chisels and planes, stocked up on the best pencils, and set to work.

Setting up the backbone

Laying chine logs over the molds

We rarely experience rain or even heavy fog along the Sonoma Coast between August and October, so I set up my backbone outside, on a level deck outside my woodshop. My dad had helped me shingle the woodshop when my parents came out to visit soon after we bought the property about ten years ago. He also helped me build the deck during one of his more recent visits, so he was already with me in spirit as I laid up the forms on heavy timbers running parallel to the length of the deck. I knew my dad would appreciate seeing how the cedar shingles and cypress decking had silvered over the years. I decided to use long timbers in lieu of a horse, knowing I could pivot them to form a ramp to the ground when the boat was ready. The finished boat would be pretty heavy, around 250 pounds, and would be awkward to carry, with very little extra space for people to maneuver around it on the deck.

Shaping the stem and stem-knee

With the forms set up at their stations along the timber foundation, I carved the stem from a solid piece of yellow Narra. I generally avoid using tropical hardwoods, but had acquired a store of Narra by accident when it was buried inside a unit of Monterey Cypress. The dimensions and grain quality of the rough Narra were perfect for my requirements, and I carved the stem from a single piece, then scarfed it to a stem knee I had made of Monterey cypress. I cut my transom from a single board of Deodar cedar I had been saving, having learned intimately of the wood’s attributes from another project. With the stem and transom secured in place along the backbone, I was ready to fit my garboards and lay up planking. To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

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