Issue: January 2002
Slow Hand

Longtime Bay boatbuilder Jimmy Drewery has worked some Chesapeake deadrise magic into a Carolina sportfisher.

 

     The hands of a wooden-boat builder are a study in contradiction. Gnarled and thick, rough as a mountain range, they are surprisingly delicate as they place a frame just so. They are patient as they fair a corner of deckhouse, and gentle as the fingers run down a smooth length of hull, barely brushing the wood. As if they’re feeling for a pulse.

     Jimmy Drewery’s hands are like this. They’ve built traditional Chesapeake Bay deadrises for decades, faired acres of decks and hulls and bent out miles of chine. His most recent boat is a 50-foot Carolina sportfisher he and a small crew, with right-hand man Bernard West, built as a working exhibition at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. In all his 60 years, it’s the first boat he’s ever built from actual drawings rather than strictly rack-of-eye. “This boat’s got a wild, crazy hull,” Drewery says. “You’ve got to loft it to get it right.”

     That much seems true. The boat, launched in late summer, is a riot of curves-from its outrageously flared bow to the graceful camber of its transom and the retro parabola of its ample tumblehome. Drewery built the boat for Chuck Hawkins, a Mariners’ Museum employee who came into a small (and unexpected) fortune when his mother passed away. “I’ve always wanted one of these,” says Hawkins, who hovered and helped through the boat’s construction like a nervous dad. “I’m thinking of running this boat awhile and then building another. That’s what I’m thinking-if I can get [Drewery and West] to build it.” Powered with two 700-hp Detroit Diesels, Drewery expected the boat to weigh about 35,000 pounds and cruise at 39 knots.

     In some respects, the sportfisher was built like any other cold-molded boat. The keel is 10-by-10-inch laminated white cedar. Ribs are laminated pairs of three-by-four-inch cedar. The hull sides, planked with white cedar, are sheathed in okuome plywood and bonded with epoxy. The cabinhouse and decks are marine fir; inside, the laminated beams across the cabin ceiling are pure artwork, long, glossy arcs of wood curving up to and then flowing down from the crown. Drewery glassed two layers of 17-ounce biaxial cloth on the boat’s bottom and two layers of 12-ounce cloth on the sides, decks and cabinhouse.

     Beneath the waterline, though, is where this boat is probably unlike any other of its style-and where it reveals its Chesapeake roots. The hull bottom is cross-planked, like any other wooden Bay deadrise, with white cedar planks stretching from the keel outward to the chine, rather than fore and aft. “That’s really the only traditional thing on this boat,” Drewery says. He opted for this generations-old method, he says, “because we knew how to do it, and because I know it’s the strongest construction.”

     Drewery is a soft-spoken, genteel man. In the shop where dusty work shirts drape the walls and wood shavings scatter like sweet-smelling confetti, Drewery seems almost formal in khaki pants and an oxford shirt. A Newport News native, his southernness comes through in a certain graciousness, and in the cadence and accent of his words-idea sounds like idear, want sounds like whunt. He turned to the water after school, working as a commercial fisherman. In 1979 he decided to build himself a new boat-not that this was particularly extraordinary. For generations, it was common for watermen to build boats in their spare time. “We usually always built them in a backyard, covered ‘em up with any type of containment we could and go from there,” he says.

     Invariably, these boats were built rack-of-eye-without plans. “You’ve an idea of what you want,” he says. “When we start a boat, we call it bending the chine.” The hull’s bottom is built upside down, starting with laying the keel. Drewery then puts wooden spreaders (usually three of them) fore to aft across the boat’s beam. Then he literally bends the chine, stretching a long, laminated piece of wood from the bow stem to the stern plank, fastening it to the ends of the spreaders, eyeballing the curve all the way. “You bend it, you look at it, and if it looks like you want it to look, you keep it. If it doesn’t, you take it apart and adjust it till it fits what your eye wants to see.” What your eye wants to see, he says, is based largely on what you want the boat to do. “If you want a boat that can run in shallow water, you want a bottom that’s relatively flat. If you want a boat that runs in the Bay, you give it a little more V, so the boat can take the water and not beat itself to death. You can do all kinds of things with the chine. You can lift it way up to give it a really sharp entry [as he did Hawkins’s sportfisher], and that gives you some speed. I’ve always tried to compromise, tried to stay in the middle of performance and stability.” Bending out the sportfisher took a day, he says. “You’ve got to at least bend one side all the way out to look at it.”

     While many watermen may have built a boat or two in their yards over their careers, few have found the art in it that Drewery has. After his first boat-a 42-footer built of Virginia spruce-he didn’t look back. He didn’t exactly hang out a shingle; he just kept building boats, here, there and everywhere, he says, using the methods and ways he learned from the men who’d done it generations before him. “I worked that boat till somebody wanted it worse’n I did, then I built another one,” he says. “I enjoy doing it. I don’t know, it’s just somethin’ that’s fun to do.” Eventually Drewery started building boats for the Mariners’ Museum as working exhibits. He helped well known local builder Billy Moore build the first Mariner, a 32-foot deadrise, on display at the museum. He also built Mariner III (with help from school students) and Mariner IV (now privately owned in Norfolk). And he helped Ron Pack build the 52-foot Mariner V, which Pack keeps at his inn and marina, Smithfield Station, on the Pagan River. “When we build a deadrise, every frame in that boat is different, except for maybe four frames aft,” Drewery says. “When we build a deadrise, we just shape it the way we want.”

     Drewery’s works-in-progress at the museum show, start to finish, the design and construction methods of a traditional Bay deadrise-a term which, for him, takes on many meanings. In its most common definition, deadrise is the angle formed from the turn of a boat’s keel to the chine or turn of the bilge. A flat-bottomed boat has very little deadrise angle; a deep-V boat has a large deadrise angle. But in Drewery’s boatbuilding lexicon, “deadrise,” while still a function of geometry, is also linked to a specific area of a Bay boat’s geography. “I have to show you,” he says, and we walk into an early spring drizzle over to a nearby open shed where Mariner is on display. Drewery folds his long frame into a squat near the boat’s bow and places his hands on one point. “You’re fitting the bottom board into the chine at this point, and at the point you leave the chine square-edged is the step. The step is where deadrise begins. The deadrise starts where the bottom and sides constitute a 45-degree angle, and that’s basically where you have to start steaming or chopping planks to make them fit. Wherever that happens, that’s where we start planking the deadrise.”

     Part of that definition also can be traced to log-canoe building decades ago, he says. “Years back they built log canoes and what wood they chopped off the bow [to create the bow’s shape] they called the deadwood. When they started building planked boats they started calling it deadrise. Some of the older guys still call it deadwood. That was quite a character who told me that-Vernon Sutterhorn. He came from a family of boatbuilders in Gloucester, Virginia, so he should have known.”

     Drewery would not be so pretentious to say that in building these boats and passing on this knowledge he is preserving an art form, or even a way of life. He knows he is, though. With the Bay’s fishing industry in decline, people just aren’t building boats like they used to. “Everybody’s using what they’ve got or getting out of it.” But there’s still enough of a demand to keep Drewery busy-and building boats is still a steadier business than fishing from them. Besides, he enjoys the work.

     Beyond the boat-shed doors, a restless spring sky opens enough for a glint of sunlight, then closes in on itself again. In the ringing silence following a table saw’s whine, bird song sweetens the air. This winter, Drewery will be working on a more traditional hull, a 42-foot deadrise similar to Mariner V. He points to a pile of lumber and some boxes in the corner. “There it is,” he says, “motor and all.” He puts his rough hand gently upon it, looking for a pulse he knows will soon be there.

 

     This story is adapted from Wendy Mitman Clarke’s forthcoming book, Window on the Chesapeake: The Bay, Its People and Places, to be published in Dec. 2002 by The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.