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crew imageKeeping a Weather Eye: Shipwrecks and Lifesaving in Boston Harbor

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May 19

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The Return of the Peapod
Or how one small vessel made its way from obscurity to the hands of the Keeper of Boston Light

By Edward McCabe, Director, Hull Lifesaving Museum Maritime Program

From time immemorial, lighthouse keepers have used a variety of workboats to allow them to operate in the most inhospitable places on earth. Those boats have had to weather a variety of conditions, and to provide consistently safe, rugged service not only to the keeper, but to families living at the lights as well. Stories abound of keepers’ children being rowed back and forth to school, sick family members being shuttled to doctors ashore, essential goods ranging from food to fuel being transferred from supply boats, and of keepers and families being stranded on their light for months at a time.

Some lighthouses were located on sandy strands, requiring a boat that could be easily drawn up the beach on rollers or a cart. Some clung precipitously to bare rock, their utility boats stored offshore on moorings or drawn uphill on trolleys by means of capstans. Some lights had no land associated with them at all, and their workboats hung on davits suspended over the sides of catwalks. While no single boat could answer all these conditions, a form of natural selection weeded out the ill-conceived innovations and adaptations; one can only hope the people involved were not weeded in the process as well.

Plenty of evidence supports the prevalence of dories, the flat-bottomed, tombstone- sterned workhorses of the coast, being very much a staple of lighthouse keepers’ lives. The dory is a relatively light workboat, and is a displacement hull that gains stability with increasing loads. It’s shortcoming is that it is “tender” or tippy, so has the potential of capsizing. Recent photos have emerged of sailing whitehalls that surely existed either as the personal craft of keepers or perhaps as government issue. These long, straight-hulled boats with their distinctive wineglass sterns were known for their sea keeping ability, allowing pilots to make long transits of open water easily. If whitehalls have a flaw, it is their failure to turn quickly and neatly when necessary.

The design that emerged over time as the quinte ssential safe, seaworthy, and handy small craft is the double-ended peapod. This relati vely short yet bee fy hybrid, said to be an amalgam of the canoes of the indigenous coastal people of New England, the round bottomed currach s of Irish mariners, and the sturdy ships’ boats of European explorers, became the boat of choice along the coast of Maine in the early 19th century, and remains so today. The sturdy, round, carvel planked hull is strengthened by close-laid steam-bent ribs and backed by a stout keel that kicks upwards to nearly identical stem and sternpost. This design allows significant loads of mat erial or people to transit rough water, quick maneuverability in swirling waters, and an iron ruggedness that forgiv es mistakes that could drop man and boat down onto a ledge with extreme prejudice. Over time, as photographs, letters, and journals attest, as the U. S. Light House Service began to hone its tools, the keeper’s “pod” became the sine qua non of utility craft for the job.

In the late summer of 2002, Captain Dan May, then Commander of Group Boston, came upon an elderly pod from coastal Maine that had fallen upon hard times. The lower planks on both sides had been replaced with knot-filled off-the-shelf pine that had been fastened with a phenomenal number of ill measured sheet rock screws. There were so many screw points sticking out of the interior, that the boat had to be flipped and the entire repair performed from the outside to avoid impaling an unwary builder. Capt. May knew that the Hull Lifesaving Museum not only maintains a fleet of traditional wooden rowing boats from it’s sites in Boston Harbor, but that it also runs a vigorous job training program for adjudicated young Bostonians. Every summer, the museum’s job training program enrollees invest considerable time and effort maintaining a 14-boat wooden fleet, and over time they have become fairly adept at boat repair work. The match seemed evident and just right. Less clear was the extent of the vessel’s wear and tear and the range of skills and materials that would be needed to bring it back to life. But, to our delight, alongside those challenges lay the concealed potential within the bones and sinews of the once marvelous little craft.

The repair began with the first crew simply disassembling the previous builders’ work and then restoring life to the remaining hull with extensive sanding down to wood and liberal applications of “magic juice”. It will not be a betrayal of a builders’ secret from time immemorial to say that magic juice is a concoction of pine tar, gum turpentine, and boiled linseed oil, cooked till a degree of viscosity is achieved that allows the juice to suck into the planks and deadwood with a thirst that would do a sailor justice. After that first summer, the now saturated hull was stored at the museum’s Windmill Point Boathouse until another wave of build ers were prepared to tackle the restoration. In fall 2003, a group of adults from the museum’s Boat Building Skills Workshop, an evening adult education program run by boatwright extraordinaire Reuben Smith, prepared for the job by using the pod as a lab experiment during the class, learning tool sharpening and use, plank spiling, fastener theory, steam bending, and more. After the class ended, a group of enthusiasts decided to stick together and labor through the winter till the pod swam. Then the winter of 03/04 arrived. With 6 miles of frozen Harbor upwind of the shop Windmill Point became arguably the coldest spot in metropolitan Boston… and work on the pod was back burnered March ’04.

In the process, neat things had to be acquired. Boxes of bronze screws and bolts arrived from Jamestown Distributors in Rhode Island. Gallons of traditional paint were delivered from Kirby & Sons Paint in New Bedford, MA hand made in a shop that has turned out New England boat paint since 1845. Long, straight grained, knot free white cedar appeared from under the floor of Redd’s Pond Boat shop in Marblehead, MA. Oak came from deep storage in our own shop, and the crew came out of the woodwork.

Suffice it to say that not one of the builders thought that we could accomplish our task, and most were only taking on the challenge to see how long we lasted. One group began the laborious work of restoring and repairing each of the 35 ribs. Another tackled the deadwood, re-bolting stem, sternpost and knees, installing “stop-waters” and re-fitting the steel crash plate that runs end to end along the keel. The last began the process of spiling each of seven planks to shape, by creating plywood templates, testing for fit, transferring those shapes onto the pristine cedar, and finally steam bending the new planks to lay onto the frames. When the seven planks were securely in place, the builders thought their work was done. Not so. With the glow of successful planking still fresh in our minds, it became clear that hundreds of fasteners still had to be replaced and dozens of bungs had to be cut and installed to keep the ocean residing on the outside. This job fell to teams of adjudicated youngsters from the museums’ summer job training program – summer #2 on the pod project. These young men, with hitherto very different experience of sharp edged tools, learned to neatly trim off “proud” oak plugs and to fair the surface before painting. Initially, the concept of oakum and cotton caulking was beyond a mystery to this crew but soon they were going at each seam on the hull with a will, and the changing tone of the mallets spoke well of the probability of a watertight vessel emerging from under their hands.

So, over 21/2 years, over 30 people put approximately 430 hours into the actual hands on portion of the work, not to mention the extraordinary, weird hours of head-scratching that preceded each move and a commensurate amount of back slapping, congratulating, and photographing after each move. Seldom have a group of ersatz artisans thought more of themselves than the crew that took on this project.

When Capt. Dan May first brought the derelict pod down from Maine a couple of years ago, he thought that it might be restored sufficiently to become a static exhibit in the foyer of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area Visitor Center in downtown Boston. That was also our goal at first, but as the original boat began to emerge, its intrinsic integrity inspired us not to create a facsimile, but to actually bring the boat back to life. By the time that Captain May turned over command of U.S.C.G. Group Boston to Captain John O’Connor in June 2004, a living artifact had emerged that cried out for use on the water. We proposed that the pod go back into service, and, where better than the station serving the last keeper of the oldest light in the nation, Boston Light.

Sally Snowman was installed in 2003 as the civilian keeper of the light, welcoming visitors and maintaining the integrity of this priceless aid to navigation at the entrance to Boston Harbor. At her installation, she was delivered to a cluster of museum rowing boats by the historic U.S.C.G. 36500. Museum crews then rowed her to the quay on Little Brewster. On Saturday, October 9, 2004, the Lifesaving Museum’s rowing boats will tow the newly re-launched peapod out to the light and present it to Keeper Snowman as her utility boat. Once again, the keeper will row around her light checking state of the facility. She might drop a line overboard and catch dinner for the crew, or take a few hours off to visit other island in the Brewster archipelago. Who knows, there might come a time when the 21st century fails her, and she once again must ply her oars in the line of duty. If that time ever came, the kids and adults who put the pod back together stand behind the keeper and her small but sturdy vessel.


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