The scent of sawdust filled
the air and the early morning sun dappled the ground beneath the overhead pines. As the whirring buzz of power drills rose and fell, snippets of conversation floated above the steady hum of more than 50 handy (and not so handy) souls, hard at work on the banks of Mill Creek (off Jackson Creek) in Deltaville, Va.
“Dad, this saw keeps getting stuck!”
“Just where does this thingy go?”
“Do you think it’s ever going
“Are we done yet?”
It was a typical day at Deltaville Maritime Museum’s Family Boatbuilding Week, where up to ten
families spend five days each July building their own wooden boat, transforming raw planks of cypress and fir into a family memory that will come to rest, not in a scrapbook, but on the water.
“I wanted the little cousins to spend time together,” says Linda Parker about her grandsons, David Parker and Alex Fino. “It’s a great family activity, building a boat from scratch.” So Linda, of Urbanna, Va., along with multiple other groups, signed her family up for the week. It quickly became a three-generation affair, with the cousins, Linda’s husband Byron, Jr., their son Byron, III and son-in-law Erik Fino all earning their stripes by sawing, caulking and painting their way to a finished floating masterpiece. If there were a few choice words uttered when a plank didn’t fit or a thumb was hit, it was out of the kids’ earshot.
As former naval officers, Byron, III and Erik were more accustomed to running boats than building them. Little did they know that by trading in a 362-foot submarine for a 12-foot wooden boat, they were reviving a family tradition of boatbuilding that reached back more than a century on Jackson Creek. And in the process, they summoned forth the ghosts of boatbuilders past, when Deltaville was known as the “Boatbuilding Capital of the Chesapeake” and home to the cross-planked Deltaville Deadrise.
A Little History
Barely more than a fisherman’s cast from the museum’s current location, the brothers John, Todd and Ladd Wright lived on Lover’s Lane in the early 1900s. At the turn of the century (the 20th century that is) residents up and down the Chesapeake lived and worked both the land and the water. It was a time of great economic challenge for many rural communities. Jobs were scarce; money tight. But with fish, crabs and oysters, at least the locals always had something to eat.
Many of them, including the Wright brothers, began building boats by necessity—they needed to get out on the water to fish. The Wrights built their first wooden boat in 1905 when Deltaville was known as Sandy Bottom. They used it to haul timber and lumber up and down the Chesapeake. It’s safe to say John Wright learned what types of lumber made good boats and soon decided to concentrate on boatbuilding. His backyard resembled a “work-in-progress” factory—one without a roof or electricity.
In Virginia, watermen worked year-round. From March through June they seeded oysters on the James River. During the summer, the watermelon trade had them traveling as far north as Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and in the winter months, they dredged for crabs. John Wright’s crafts were in high demand.
Deltaville was the ideal location for boatbuilding. There was an abundance of high quality lumber from nearby forests and local saw mills. When electricity came to the area in 1931, the craftsmen had an advantage over more isolated areas and could build boats faster and cheaper. When they needed a particularly long, straight piece of wood—for a mast or boom—they ventured into the Dragon Run swamp at the headwaters of the nearby Piankatank River to find the ideal tree.
Yet perhaps the greatest reason boatbuilding took off in Deltaville was because everyone shared their skills, passing knowledge from sons to granddaughters and neighbors to neighbors. It’s been said that Deltaville men married Mathews women who then brought the skills of that area’s boatbuilders with them. John taught neighbors what he knew; they then started their own businesses. Soon, almost every backyard on the creek had a boat under construction.
The Families Gather
All that history was pretty much lost on the young cousins, David and Alex, however. “The best part of being on the water is fishing,” says David, a fourth grader. “I like spot fish, but it all looks the same once it’s on the plate.” Alex says that his job is to help row and to bail. Just getting the boys to leave the world of “Minecraft” (pocket edition) and immerse themselves for a week in building their own boat was a tremendous success. Their fathers (Byron, III and Erik) first met while they were officers aboard the U.S.S.
. Erik says they were both stationed in Virginia Beach. “One day I met a girl at the pool named Macon and then the next, I saw her photograph in Byron’s cabin. It was Byron’s sister.” They went from shipmates to brothers-in-law soon enough. Their families, Byron’s in New Market, Md., and Erik’s in Fredericksburg, Va., remained close both on and off the water. The week in Deltaville gave them many, many more hours to get even closer.
Family boat builds have been going on for years at museums, boat shows and town festivals. Most take just a few days and offer prepackaged boat kits made with glue and plywood (the “stitch and glue” method). While the end results may be functional, it’s not as deeply satisfying as constructing a boat with a century-old design and wood that looks like it really did come from a tree.
“Several years ago, a family came all the way from Chicago just for our week,” says Chuck McGhinnis, who heads up the museum’s effort. “Deltaville’s was the only boatbuilding project they found that used original construction techniques.”
Not content to use just any ol’ design, the museum didn’t have to look far to find exactly what it wanted. Among the museum’s holdings were the remains of a wooden skiff built by John Wright. Volunteer Jim Thimsen used them to create a set of detailed blueprints. “We changed the design a bit to make things more manageable and kept the beam under four feet,” says McGhinnis. “But this design pretty much represents a typical boat built in Deltaville more than 75 years ago.”
Although the museum doesn’t use a prepackaged kit, it does try to make the process as easy as possible for participants whose ages and skills vary widely. (Some have never held a screwdriver, explains McGhinnis.) Long before the families arrive, volunteers gather at the museum’s workshop throughout the winter, cutting planks of cypress from North Carolina for the bottom and sideboards and fir that will be used for the ribs. One board might require as many as five cuts. Multiply that many times over and literally thousands of cuts are made for just ten finished boats. Fortunately, instead of a foot adze and hand plane, electric drills and saws make the task far easier and quicker.
The museum has had many requests for prepackaged kits, McGhinnis says, but they don’t sell them. “Wood goes its own way,” he explains. “It doesn’t move exactly the way you expect it to. So our volunteers check that each step in the building process has been done correctly.”
The Boats Take Shape
“The construction of the boat will begin upside down,” say the instructions for Day One. The Parker family and the others work hard fastening the bottom sideboards to the “inner stem.” They use a Spanish windlass (a line wrapped around the ends of the port and starboard sideboards) to gently bend and pull them to meet the transom in the back. After much coaxing, pleading and sweat, a boat takes shape. “All our families are happy to see it starts looking like a boat on Day One,” notes McGhinnis. “Then we have them turn the boat right side up and call it a day.”
The builders install the inner keel or keelson and the bottom boards on Day Two. At this step, it’s important, McGhinnis explains, to make sure the boat is not “racked” or crooked. “There’s no going back after this point,” he chuckles.
Each new day, the families return under the trees to continue working on their boats. Between breaks for lunch or returning to a favorite book, work progresses, sometimes smoothly, sometimes in quick “aha! moments” when everything seems to fit just right. If some workers move rapidly, the museum volunteers encourage them to help others so that everyone keeps up.
By Day Three, the skeg is in place, the sides raised and the ribs attached. She’s really looking like a boat now, much to the delight of all the kids. The next two days are filled with attaching seats and oarlocks, trimming off excess wood and then sanding, painting and caulking—over and over until she’s just right. All the while, families discuss just what to name their new boats. Erik Fino says that the first name they came up with was
but they finally ended up with
It’s unique to Deltaville’s event that local sign letterers add the crowning touch by hand painting each transom with the skiff’s new name. Sea Lilly,
Favor were just some of the names that brought the boats to life.
Everything is leading up to the week’s final event: The John Wright Memorial One-Design Family Rowing Race. (Or, at least that’s what it should be named!) The boats are all launched. Some skiffs ride higher than others, depending on how many family members want in on the action. Crews practice going around in circles before they figure out how to row backwards. A few kids turn the oars over to parents while others figure out that a bit of bailing might just be necessary. On shore, grandparents and others cheer the boats on as they venture out into the creek, round a buoy and then race back to the finish line.
do? Well, even though young Alex did get to practice his bailing, the family had a respectable finish. The winner of the race went to
, built by the 14-member Mince family from Mary Point, Va. But of course, everyone ended up winners, having spent time together as family, working toward a goal that will last for generations.
To date, 117 John Wright skiffs have been lovingly built on the shores of Mill Creek during Deltaville’s Family Boatbuilding Week. Some have been auctioned off to raise money for charity. Others have appeared in TV shows—check out AMC’s Revolutionary War TV series,
, which features several of the finished crafts. But most simply go home with their builders who will take them out on the water, fishing for spot or just for an afternoon trip on the Bay.
This year’s Family Boatbuilding Week is July 17–23, 2016 and although they tend to fill up quickly, there are still some spots available. Just like the original Jackson Creek boatwrights, the museum continues to improve on its technique. “This year, we’re going to start building the boat right side up,” explains Chuck McGhinnis. “We’ve already done two prototypes and think it will make the process easier for the families. We might even consider selling kits if it works out well.”
Whether or not the museum does sell kits and John Wright’s traditional wooden crabbing skiffs appear all over the Bay remains to be seen. But when the next ten or so boats are launched this July, it’s safe to say that for just one day, Deltaville will once again be the heart of boatbuilding on the Chesapeake.
John Wright and his brothers would have been proud.
Karen Soule grew up sailing on Lake Michigan and is now happily at home on the Bay. She and her husband, David, sail their Ericson 38 Soulmate out of Fishing Bay Yacht Club in Deltaville, Va.
Want to Build?
To apply for the Deltaville Museum Family Boatbuilding Week, contact:
Deltaville Maritime Museum
287 Jackson Creek Road
Deltaville, VA 23043