As well as he knows boats, Scofield is convinced of one thing. Wooden boats have personalities. They have attitudes. They can be finicky. They know if the skipper is experienced or not. If they don’t like the way they’re being treated, they’ll start springing leaks.
“I talk to my boats,” says Scofield, who is responsible for the museum’s 90-boat collection—wooden vessels that reflect the storied heritage of the Chesapeake Bay. “I don’t know if they listen.”
Once upon a time in maritime ports such as Annapolis, boatbuilding boomed. It never reached the scale of a powerhouse like New England, but it was an important part of the economy and while it has dwindled dramatically over the decades. It still is—not only for the capital city but for the Chesapeake Bay region and the state.
The Chesapeake region was home to famed boat manufacturers like Annapolis Yacht Yard, Owens Yacht Company, and John Trumpy & Sons, upscale motor yacht builders. They are gone, for a variety of reasons.
Waterfront property became too valuable and rents unaffordable. Maryland’s tough environmental laws are at odds with such modern technology as fiberglass. Other states—notably North and South Carolina, and Florida—have a friendlier business climate and a cheaper labor force. Maine offers incentives. The bigger boats go to New England, for the deep water and maintenance facilities they require.
Says Peter Lesher, curator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, “The industry that’s left is such a small percentage of the boatbuilding world—perhaps one to two percent—we’re more of an interesting corner than a hotspot.”
Jim Weaver builds the kind of boats that if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford them. A third-generation boat builder, Weaver owns and runs Weaver Boatworks, in Tracy’s Landing, where he produces two custom-made sports fishing boats per year, 58- to 85-feet long, with price tags of $2 million to $6 million.
That’s a good production schedule for a high-end builder like himself, says Weaver, who can name a handful of other luxury boat builders in the Bay region. A couple of dozen shops remain in the area, including individual craftsmen who build small, relatively affordable power boats one at a time. A company in Salisbury makes ferry and tugboats, although they’re not unique to the Chesapeake Bay.
“We’re a niche industry,” Weaver says of boatbuilding.
Overall, the state’s maritime industry is a $2.4 billion business, according to the Marine Trades Association, and one that employs roughly 30,000 people. The Annapolis head quartered group bases its figures on the 200,000-plus registered boaters in the state.
Boatbuilding is a fraction of that figure, a segment hit hard by the economy. One oldtimer sadly lists company after company that has gone out of business since the recession of 2008.
But the maintenance and service sides of the industry are on solid footing. Weaver works out of Herrington Harbour Marina, where 1,500 boats are docked. All of them need repairing, repainting, and resupplying every year.
Annapolis is the hub of the industry, a popular place for boaters. With its marinas and boat slips, boat dealers, and yacht clubs, not to mention separate sail and power boat shows, the maritime industry contributes $96 million to the local economy, according to a recent survey.
“There are a lot of boats here,” says Russell Bowler, vice president of Farr Yacht Design, an Annapolis-based sailboat designer, “and they need tender, loving care.”
Campbell’s Boatyards is one of seven working boatyards in Oxford, on the Eastern Shore, that combine several aspects of the maritime industry. Owners Susan and Tom Campbell started it in 1993, beginning with the boatbuilding Tom Campbell had learned while working for an artisan in Easton. Since then, they have added three marinas and a total of 176 slips, with services like repairing, repowering, hauling out and varnishing, “to diversify the business,” says Susan Campbell.
Campbell’s boats are custom-made in the classic style; powerboats with fiberglass hulls and some wood interiors, 31-feet to 42 feet long from about $235,000 to $950,000. “We make one a year,” says Susan Campbell, “and our customers are mostly former sailboaters who go into power. They like the luxury of turning a key.”
When Lenny Rudow looks out the window of his Edgewater home, he sees the three boats he owns. The longest Rudow, a boating and fishing expert, has gone without owning a boat is three months.
“My wife said I turned into a pill. I promised I’d never do it again,” recounts Rudow, an editor for BoatUS, Marlin and Boating World magazines and publisher of Geared Up, which specializes in non-fiction books about fishing and the Chesapeake Bay.
The classic Chesapeake Bay boats date to the 19th century, where they were developed in response to the fishing, oystering, and crabbing conditions and to the local technology and material available at the time.
The Bay’s deadrise, aka V-bottom, designs put the boat low in the water to account for the relatively shallow depth and to enable workers to haul their heavy catches on board. Other areas developed their own, uniquely adapted designs, like the New England sloop, for fishing close to shore, and the Grand Banks schooner, which could stay out for months at a time.
The many work boats on the Bay—all power now—often have that classic design, although the era of the big schooners and bugeyes is long gone. The skipjack is still around, but in greatly diminished numbers. This winter, according to Scofield, six skipjacks dredged oysters, compared to more than 1,000 sailing vessels in the late 1800s.
The classic Bay design also lives on in another use. Rudow doesn’t know why—perhaps the boat’s stability; perhaps the look, one that evokes fond feelings among local boaters. But, he says, “There has been a fascinating crossover. The design is
quite popular for recreational powerboats.”
There is a difference, though. While modern boats look traditionally styled, physically they’re not. “It’s like replicas of a model
T-Ford with a Corvette engine,” says Rudow.
Bill Donahue, a Millersville boatbuilder and owner of Annapolis Classic Watercraft, explains the new technique and material. In traditional construction, the boat is built plank on frame. For the hull, a frame is built and planks are attached to the outside. The planks are screwed to the frame and finished with a caulking compound. In the new technique, called cold molding, the frame is covered with thin strips of wood veneer and epoxy glue or wood veneer, epoxy, and Kevlar. Boats may also be built of fiberglass and finished in wood.
“The new construction technique can be just as low maintenance as fiberglass,” says Donahue, adding that marine engineers or naval architects are often hired to design the boat for customers who are willing to pay the higher price for these
custom and semi-custom boats over stock boats.
In Annapolis, Chesapeake Light Craft holds boatbuilding classes and sells build-your-own boat kits, primarily for plywood construction. The kit boats are a traditional-style but not the classic Chesapeake boats. “The latter don’t lend themselves to being built in kit form,” says president/owner John Harris.
Classic wooden boats are still being built—in museums. “Making a living building wood boats on the Bay is not feasible anymore,” says Richard Dodds, director of the Calvert Marine Museum, in Solomons, which focuses on Southern Maryland boat history.
Dodds’ staff builds a few small, classic boats yearly —skiffs up to 18-feet—in wood planks and in plywood, for boatbuilding classes and for sale. “It’s our effort to keep these skills alive,” he says, adding that the museum sells plans of the boats in its collection, generally $15 per plan.
Like the Calvert museum, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum staffers build traditional wooden boats, usually 10- to 20-feet in
size, as demonstrations for boatbuilding classes. The finished boats are sold, for $4,000 to $12,000, to support the museum.
“The design might have been a work boat but they’re built now for recreation, meaning they’re a little nicer, not so utilitarian. They’re not stripped-down pickup trucks,” says Scofield, who supervises the construction and classes.
Lesher, of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, admires the classic design. “For customers who want to be noticed on the water, they’re very distinctive, very classy,” he says. “When I’m out on the water, they certainly catch my eye.”
Barbara Pash is a Baltimore-based freelance writer who has written for and served as editor for a number of regional publications.
Boating by the Numbers
• Of the approximately 200,000 Maryland-registered boats, about 172,000 are powerboats and 13,400 are sailboats.
• Total spending by the maritime industry in Anne Arundel County was nearly $389 million in 2005, the latest figure available.
• One-sixth of all Maryland-registered boaters “live” in Anne Arundel County.
• The maritime business is the largest private-sector contributor to Annapolis’ economy, accounting for nearly $96 million and approximately 1,400 jobs.
• Annapolis has nearly 3,400 boat slips at marinas, individual homes, and development complexes.
• Annapolis accounts for nearly 15 percent of all maritime business in Maryland.
• Annapolis boatbuilders make up 24 percent of the state’s total number of boatbuilders.