Building Your Own at Reedville

By Tom Neale, 7/9/2009


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Jay Rohmann at helm of Smuttynose
Chesapeake Bay has always been special to me. It’s long been a seafaring town and, unlike so many others, still is. Its ambiance hasn’t changed to “yachtie,” and I like that. It’s of commercial seafaring.  Its menhaden fleet still brings in the catch, which is processed in the “factory” ashore. A few old wrecks of barges and menhaden ships lie here and there along the shore. I guess there are some who would call them an eyesore, but I wouldn’t. They’re a natural part of the past that I love to see and remember. A tall brick smokestack, the one that you see as you approach from the Bay, stands alone on a point.  A few remnants of brick processing factories, some now out in the water, remind you of where the shore or old piers used to be.

But Reedville isn’t just a place of the past. As you head up the Great Wicomico River and then enter Cockrell Creek, you see along the shore many nice homes from an older gentler era, surrounded by well kept yards, many with a dock for pleasure or commercial use. And, as you get further into the creek, you pass the menhaden fleet, tied up, rafted out, waiting to head back to the fishing waters--unless the fleet is already out at work. From the town’s docks you can take several local charter boats out to fish on the bay, or take a ferry over to Tangier Island for a visit. Each year there is the very popular Reedville Bluefish Derby with large prizes.

The town is both quaint and vibrant in an old fashioned sincere way. A large bed and breakfast dominates part of the waterfront and the quiet streets are lined with houses, many of the Victorian style. It’s easy to tell that the people who live in them love them.  This place isn’t yuppified yet, like so many “historical” areas or “renovated waterfront” areas. It’s still genuine. Cockrell Creek and various branches run through it, always reminding you that this is a water town. The fine homes of sea captains of the past dominate some of the prettier spots. But it isn’t all genteel. You’ll still see working crab houses, fish houses, boatyards and a few marinas on the waterfront. And deadrise boats are still built here, with native art and skill that’s seldom found elsewhere.

Old Deadrise on the Railway at Reedville

Last weekend we took a day trip up the Chesapeake Bay in a friend’s 30-foot wooden lobster boat named “Smuttynose,” designed and built by Arno Day.  The 1968-built boat had been tricked out for short term cruising and its 70 hp diesel pushed us at around 8 knots into a light northwesterly chop. We were delivering it to the Reedville Marine Railway owned by George Butler, for some work. Here they can also build boats, and a beautiful deadrise head boat sat at the dock at this yard, where she was born. This trip was one story of the day, the town of Reedville was another, but the best part of the day, even better than the trip on the water, was another very special story. It waited down a main street which was lined with houses already decked out with flags and banners for the Fourth of July, yet a week off.

The story was taking place on the grounds of the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum. This was the weekend of the museum’s “Family Boatbuilding Workshop.”  Families, often including young people, come from far and wide (and nearby) to immerse themselves in the maritime history of the Chesapeake and to learn how to build a boat and then to actually build one. The experience is authentic as well as educational.

Jay Rohmann reviewing deadrise skiff being built

Certain museum members build and maintain boats daily in their workshop which is well equipped with modern tools and equipment as well as gear from days past. A few years ago they built a carefully researched working re-creation of the sailing/rowing barge in which Captain John Smith explored the Bay.  They named her the “Spirit of 1608.” You’ll see her at the museum unless she’s out and about. You’ll also probably see the “Claud W. Somers,” a 42-foot skipjack built in 1911, the “Elva C,” a 55-foot deck boat deadrise built in 1922, and “The Foggy River,”a 42-foot chunk stern deadrise, built locally in 1962.  These members not only built the Smith barge re-creation, they maintain the museum’s fleet and build skiffs to sell to support the museum.

Menhaden Boats at Reedville

During the Family Boatbuilding Workshop, these modern day craftsmen of old boat building, all volunteers, work with each family. They begin by teaching them about building a skiff and soon move into the “doing it” phase.  Each family actually builds its own 9.5-foot skiff. As problems and questions arise, the museum boat builders are there to tutor, and to provide answers. But it is the families who build the boats. Tools are limited to a few battery powered necessities, to keep the projects as authentic as practical. The workshop begins on a Friday morning and ends with the launching of the boats Sunday afternoon.  It’s wonderful to see parents and kids working together to actually build a boat, to see the pride at the launchings, and to see them loading their boats on pickup trucks or trailers to take home. There are a few bed and breakfast establishments around where people can stay.

The boats aren’t the cardboard and duck tape variety that you see in some events. They’re wood, and they’re real boats that the family can use for years to come. The design is the “Mabel Skiff” by Jay Rohmann, a member of the museum. Jay also owns the “Smuttynose” which took us to Reedville that day. I am told that this type of event was originally the idea of Wooden Boat Magazine, and that there are others similar to it, perhaps in your neighborhood.

Tom’s Tips about Family Boat Projects

1. If a family works together to maintain a boat it can promote better understanding of boating, better safety on the water, better sense of responsibility, and a feeling of pride and self reliance..

Click Here for More Tips

The land around the Chesapeake Bay and other bays, lakes and tributaries around the continent is filling with “restored areas” and “historical landmarks” and restaurant/shopping areas all named something like “water this” or “harbor that.” That’s fine. But I love best the places that are still much the way they were when the waters were for transportation and food gathering. And, fortunately, you can still find places like this around our shores, if you but slow down and look.



Copyright 2004-2009 Tom Neale