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Preview: Workboat Beginnings, Part 1 – Swampscott Dory & Dory Skiff

July 16, 2013

From the Grand Banks to the yacht club dinghy float, lapstrake dory skiffs like the Swampscott Dory have been a New England staple for a century and a half. Ben Fuller takes us through their history and shows us the features that made them so effective in a range of circumstances.

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– [Ben] These boats are super in the sea. I row one out of Camden in the wintertime. I feel like I’m a guy in a Winslow Homer painting.

– [Adam] So a rough-water boat.

– [Ben] Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

– [Adam] So we’ve brought you down to the small boat livery at Mystic Seaport today with Ben Fuller. Ben’s a curator at the Penobscot Marine Museum and used to be the curator here at Mystic Seaport.

– Ben, thanks for joining us.

– Yep.

– We wanted to have a look at some dory skiffs…

– Yep.

– …and talk through a little bit of the evolution of the dory-type construction down here on the dock.

– Let’s get in this nice big Swampscott here. As long as we’re gonna be sittin’. I mean, I’m too old to stand all the time.

– Swampscott dory.

– Yeah.

– This looks very much like what everyone perceives as the dory, the old Banks dory…

– Yep.

– …the slab-sided flat-bottom dory.

– Big, lot of rake in the ends, good sea boat that’s really nice when you’re out in the big sea, because they’ll just kind of work through the sea so nicely.

– [Adam] Right.

– But the big Banks slab-side type dories, one they’re heavy, and two, they weren’t optimized for rowing and so forth. They’re optimized for carrying a loading. They’re for stacking. Stackin’ ’em on the deck of a schooner, and for fast construction. This particular style of dory was developed for beach fishery. This is where the Swampscott name came from. But in the beach fishery, you need to get out, and we’re rowing out, sailing if there was a wind in the right direction but sailing out, one or two guys, and what we’re gonna be doing is handlining for cod. We could also use these as lobster boats, to handle lobster traps. And you’re sitting in your fishery but you might have to carry some distance, so you want something that’s a little lighter. The guys who, again with steam and so forth, came up with a round-sided dory; we call ’em Swampscott Dories, they’re all over the place. You know, we built them in Maine.

– This lap straight construction, very lightweight construction

– Quite light.

– Something that you can haul the thing up and down a beach and launch out into some surf.

– Adam, you’re absolutely right. I mean, these nice raking ends besides handling a reasonable breaking sea, when I got offshore, I’m trying to get out through a little bit of surf. A little bit of surf, a little bit of beach break. It’s kinda nice to have that, have those ends coming up, sweeping up on me.

– Lift you through.

– That’s right, that’s right.

– So Ben, can you tell us a little bit about how these dories were constructed? I see a relatively flat, broad bottom plank here.

– Yeah, and when I lift up one of the floor boards here you can actually really see this. The bottom of these boats is consisting of several planks running fore and aft in this direction in here, with cleats coming across. You’ve got a centerboard trunk in the way here, but you can see the cleat coming all the way across. That holds those bottom boards together. The way this is built, it’s the same as a banks type dory you put the flat bottom down, and then you start planking right up to the bottom. Not an easy thing to fix if you want to replace the bottom.

– Ben, I notice here on the under side of the seat, this really nice little scull on either side.

– Yeah, just helps to lighten up your eye. You don’t have to do it, it just looks nice.

– Kinda halfway back there’s quite a stretch between the center thwart and the aft seat here. But I’m noticing this little notch in the seat riser.

– [Ben] Yeah, so a piece of kit that we don’t have, but they had was a removable seat that would notch right into this spot in here so that you could row from your third set of oarlocks in here. Dories, because of their flat bottom, are very weight sensitive, so it’s very easy to get them bow down. And if I was rowing this with just you, I wouldn’t row from here and here. I would be rowing from forward, and I’ve have you aft in here so that my stern would be down a little bit, so that my bow wouldn’t gripe around and it wouldn’t sort of sheer off in an uncontrolled manner. Let’s walk over to that dory skiff. Boats like that Swampscott were coming from commercial dory building shops. They were commercial builders building these. As the recreational market started to improve say around 1900 and started to develop, they wanted to tap into that market; so they took their traditional styles and they adapted them to a recreational market, coming up with what we in New England call a dory skiff.

– Ben, this seems very similar in a lot of ways in looking at this broad bottom plank, and then a turn in the bilge, but a much beamier, …

– Yeah.

– …a little heavier, a little heftier construction in this boat, but with something much different in mind.

– Yes, because what I’m now going to do is I’m going to take the family out, and I’m going to take it out so I want something that is nice that I can lay over. Nice and stable. I don’t need to deal with the potentially rough seas. I’m not going to be launching this thing through surf. I’m not having to go out there to deal with my gear. I don’t have to go if it’s a bad day. So I’m looking for a pleasant day on the water.

– So the stem seems a little more plumb, not as laid out as the Swampscott, …

– Yeah.

– …and the transom…

– Much wider, much more plump, but you notice how much additional width there from when you were in the other, the Swampscott, you couldn’t really slide from side to side, you were pretty much locked into one space. I mean it would be very easy for you to sit over in a corner and have someone sitting next to you, wouldn’t it?

– Right.

– Or again, sailing a skiff like this, you ran your benches all the way down the side, so that you’re sailing, it’s very easy for you to have a nice place to sit in the boat but balanced up in a nice spot.

– Having a look at some of these construction details, a little different than the Swampscott dory, it looks like there’s a sawn frame with a few steam bent frames in between?

– This construction technique in here if we look at the frame in here. This was very typical. This would be the way a Banks dory would be put together with this sawn frame in here, originally this would’ve been a natural crook sawn frame and on the Banks dories there’s a metal clip right in here where you’ve got a heavy angle in here, in this case they pieced the piece up to get it out of several different pieces, and came across like this.

– So it’s tied together with more timber on the center line, and sistered here at this joint.

– Yeah, okay, you notice we have a little water in the boat, this is a result of some thunderstorms we’ve been having running around in here. And you can see here you’ve got your bottom built like the Swampscott, you’ve got you’re four and a half planking, you’ve got your cleats in here, you can also see the merits of having a floorboard, because I could get into this boat dry shy, and have a little bit of water in there, and then put it right back down in here I can put my pump right in here, and pump the water out.

– Centerboard case for a little pleasure sailing…

– Yep.

– …just some little wood cleats. Some pretty interesting oarlocks here, Ben.

– By the late 19th early 20th century, you could make anything in metal. So this was a different style of patented oarlock then we’ve seen before. This is a really nice recreational feature because I can’t lose that oarlock.

– Another feature I’m noticing here, Ben, there’s a pin through here, is that simply just a cleat to tie the boat up?

– No, that’s a cleat for your mainsheet.

– Ah ha.

– Thinking about this boat under sail, you might have a little boom, you might just want to take a turn of your mainsheet right underneath something and hold it by your hand. Real simple way of putting a cleat in, isn’t it?

– That’s brilliant, just a pin through the top of that frame there.

– Yeah.

– So Ben, where did the dory skiffs go from here?

– Some of these became very big one design racing classes, and so forth, that you’ll find in the Marblehead and the haunt area and so forth. Other cases, they got smaller for a different recreational market, which we can go take a look at.

– [Adam] Let’s have a look.

– Okay, so we’re going to hop in this skiff here. Now we are looking at a different market. I know have a big boat, and I need a boat to get me out to my big boat.

– A tender for a…?

– A tender for a nice sail boat, for some other small sailing yacht.

– Something you can get on the deck of a boat and in either davits or in chocks?

– Yeah, you can pull it up, you can pull it up over the side, skid it up over, very light. You and I could pick this boat up. This is 100 pounds, maybe. But you can still put three adults in it.

– You basic dory construction

– Yep. …flat bottom…

– Yep.

– …planked bottom, …

– Yeah.

– …with these cleats very much right in keeping with the original Swampscott, but on a much smaller scale.

– I don’t put floorboards in here because I’m interested in saving weight. Weight is critical when you’re playing with tenders; but this tender here, I can put three adults, four I’m a little bit overloaded on. I row these with two adults in here, and me rowing from here one person in there, and I don’t have a whole lot of freeboard left.

– Not a lot of freeboard left.

– But it works really well. Again, we’re in a nice stable boat here. You know that I could work around another boat. But it’s light, and I am really liking a boat like this. And again, I’m a dory builder, this is the kind of boat that I know how to build. And I can build them fast, and inexpensively.

– In comparison to the Herreshoff Columbia model, or the Lawley Lapstrake…

– They’re beautiful.

– …tenders of their day, a much more simple, economic, and inexpensive boat to put together.

– Those tenders, they’re beautiful tenders, this boat probably took a third of the time to build.

– Right.

– So, you can look at the price.

– So Ben, construction details, same style, but very fine; I mean the frames in this boat are what? Three eighths of an inch thick and three quarters of an inch wide?

– Yeah, so you’re just keeping it light, coming down your footing here, again you’ve got the big cleat to hold that floor in place, you’ve kept it simple, you’ve kept it light, you’ve kept the maintenance easy. You have decent size spacing in here so that sanding becomes a relatively easy chore. Again, the chamfers that we’ve seen on our seat, but also look at the little detail on the seat that you’re sitting in there,

– It’s just a little bead cut.

– And you can’t see it from here but I sure can. Look underneath your seat. Look what they did to the seat support. You just carved a little bit of an ogee shape in here. You don’t have to do it, it’s just nice.

– Open gunnel here, Ben, I’m noticing that again just a little chamfer on the top edge of those frames just dresses that up.

– It dresses it up. It helps keep water from beading up in here, and this open gunnel construction here is really particularly nice on a tender, because I can roll this up to the dock and I want to get the water out I can just roll it up the side the water just runs right out.

– Oarlock risers and oarlocks here.

– You used to be able to get oarlocks pretty easily that had a little eye on the siding here. You can’t do that anymore so what I do, and a lot of people do, is if you take this and you just drill a little hole in your oarlock. And that means that you can just put it in like that. So you go from here, bang; and I like to put them like that so they don’t step on the oarlock and jam it into the bottom of the boat when I’m getting in and out of the boat.

– Ben I want to thank you for spending some time showing us through the dory, the semi dory, you know the Gloucester fishing dory to the Swampscott, and those virtues kind of trickling down through this recreational market.

– All done by the same builders.

– Want to thank you for spending the time with us.

– You’re quite welcome.

– It’s been great.



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