Small wooden boats make waves again. 19th-century designs and skills are being rediscovered by today's craftsmen

BEFORE there was oil, only wind or sweat got you from here to there. And while horses could do your legwork for you on land, they were awkward in a canoe. When it came to moving over the water, either you propelled your boat or the wind did. And so, just as Detroit designers in the 1970s reshaped their cars to slip through the air and thus eke the last inch of distance from a barrel of oil, so builders of small vessels vied with one other to produce craft that would row with a minimum of effort or run before the lightest of breezes. There were other criteria as well: Fishermen didn't want to pay large crews if they could get by with fewer; wilderness guides needed a craft they could portage through the forest with ease; boats carried on cod-fishing ships to offload their catches had to be sturdy, stable, stowable.

Enter the catboat, the Adirondack guideboat, and the common dory. The catboat's huge mainsail could be handled by one man from the deck; there was no topsail to be reefed by a crewman sent aloft. Instead of a few thick - and heavy - ribs, the Adirondack guideboat had many light cedar ribs to brace the inside, and a built-in yoke so that it could be carried easily on the shoulders. A dory's hull profile makes it more stable as it's loaded. By taking out gunwales and seats, the dories could be stacked on deck like china bowls. They were cheap to build, to boot.

The building of small wooden boats ``reached a climax in the 19th century - you had remarkable progress in that century,'' says John Gardner, whose official title is associate curator for small craft studies at the Mystic Seaport Museum here. To colleagues, though, he's ``the guru of the small wooden boat revival.''

For the small wooden boat needed plenty of reviving, after the 20th-century ravages of internal combustion engines, fiberglass - and bicycles.

About the turn of the century, inboard gasoline engines made the design demands of water, wind, and sinew less important. Anything watertight could churn through the water under power. There was less call for the highly perfected workboats.

Meanwhile, Americans had discovered leisure time in the years after the Civil War, says Mr. Gardner. Leisure meant boating for many, and boat races for some. Boatbuilders obliged with sleeker, ``yachtier'' designs. Young Boston businessmen who couldn't afford trips to the country would ride the electric trolleys to the boathouses on the Charles. On weekends, they'd fill the river with wineglass-sterned Whitehalls, rowing classics.

But the invention of the pneumatic tire and the safety bicycle touched off a boom in cycling that helped send Boston's Whitehall manufacturer spiraling into bankruptcy during the panic of 1892-93. By the 1940s, even people in places as salt-sprayed as Marblehead, Mass., ``had almost given up rowing completely,'' says Gardner. He was there.

When prosperous postwar America came back to boating in the '50s, it went down to the sea in fiberglass runabouts. They were cheaper, lighter, and easier to maintain than their wooden forebears. The shape of their hulls had less to do with wind and tide than what could be molded economically, or wrestled onto a cartop.

Wooden boats hit bottom. And yet, a series of articles on wooden boats by L.Francis Herreshoff in Rudder magazine in the '40s had seemed to strike a note. Then came Howard Chapelle's ``American Small Sailing Craft'' in 1952, a book Gardner calls ``unquestionably the most influential book of its kind.'' Readers ``saw something they hadn't realized existed, and it kindled a flame,'' he says. Hundreds of vintage small wooden craft were built from plans in that book: New Haven sharpies, Delaware duckers, Barnegat Bay sneakboxes, Noman's Land double-enders, sailing peapods, Tancook whalers, Stephen's wherries.

John Gardner had been swept into the trade during its ``last hurrah'' in World War II. Retired builders of wooden boats were pressed into service for the war effort. Gardner, who had learned much of the craft growing up, asked for a job with a Marblehead boat shop. ``They heard I had a Maine accent,'' says Gardner, ``so I was in.'' He read the Herreshoff articles, and they stirred him. He began ``taking the lines off'' old boats, translating their three-dimensional shape onto a two-dimensional plan. He sketched the construction details, and started writing articles of his own.

``I was trying to go home again,'' he says of his affection for wooden boats, in a voice that still has a hefty slice of Down East Maine in it. He'd had a flat-bottom skiff as a boy along the St. Croix River, a boat he'd take cranberry picking, or flounder spearing, or across the river to New Brunswick, Canada, to visit cousins.

Boatbuilding, and writing about boats, became his career. ``Pretty close'' to 30 years later, in 1970, he came to the Mystic Seaport Museum to hold the first classes in traditional wooden boat building. There are dozens of such classes today all over the country, he says.

What he was telling anyone who would listen then, he is still telling them now: Boats are to be used. They're not to be restored, ``treated as lifeless artifacts,'' or pored over by experts like ``taxidermists preparing exhibits of dead animals.''

Find the classic boats, he says. Stabilize them so they don't disintegrate further. Then use them as a ``reference library'' where they can be studied to see how they weathered and wore. Analyze them, build replicas that people can use in a museum that's ``a nursery of living thoughts.''

``I'm not an antiquarian,'' says Gardner, standing among the racks of tagged and mostly ragged wooden boats in a former velvet factory nearby (the museum has about 400 small craft). ``I have no patience with just collecting things, like a squirrel. They've got to enrich our lives in the present and in the future.'' He wants people to enjoy boats the way he enjoyed his boat: on the water.

To that end, starting May 1 the Mystic Seaport Museum will begin a one-month trial of ``The Boathouse,'' a modest collection of 13 classic wooden boats the public can rent to row and sail: among them, Whitehalls, peapods, skiffs, Beetle cats, and Swampscott dories. Some are replicas built in the museum's own shops, some are original. Boaters will have to be qualified, but one-hour courses - and all-day classes - are planned.

Preserving America's maritime heritage is a relatively new concept. The big sailing ships didn't get much attention till the 1930s; the smaller craft not till the '60s, when most maritime museums came into being. Even now, preservationists are still discovering what needs to be saved. Historic boats, unlike historic buildings, can hide in sheds, lie wrecked underwater, or bob from port to port.

And if John Gardner has his way, there will be more vintage wooden boat designs bobbing from port to port - with new passengers and captains discovering what he loved about boats as a boy.

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