Big things have been happening in the past two weeks and we are rapidly approaching our launch. Given that we planked with green lumber we were forced to wait over a week and a half for the boards to dry out to a point where we could pack our seams with oakum. Oakum, used for centuries caulking wooden boats, is wood fiber and tar. The greasy strands are twisted tight and packed into the seam.
Rather than slamming the oakum into our seams, the preferred method is to place the tool on the top edge of the twist so that it is twisted even tighter as it is packed in . Oakum is driven in place with a hammer and a chisel and strands are braided together to create one continuous line. As our boards swell, so too will the oakum, ultimately creating a very watertight boat.
With the laborious task of packing oakum completed, we prepared to flip the boat. We spent Thursday and Friday of last week trying to rally a crew strong enough to lift the boat from its jig, flip it over onto hay bails and place it on the trailer. As the workday ended friends from the batteau community and beyond began trickling into the backyard. By 6:30 we had at least 40 strong hands, motivated by strong community bonds and a cold keg of Rolling Rock. The crowd gathered around the boat and effortlessly lifted it from the jig. Carefully we rested the boat on its edge and gently rolled it over to sit right side up on the hay bails. Seeing the boat right-side-up for the first time was a real thrill. We moved eagerly to get the boat on the trailer.
The rapid move to the trailer proved to be an ill fated decision. Earlier in the day we had
neglected to consider the fact that when a boat is loaded on a ramp the tongue is higher than the rear. As 40-plus people lifted the boat and attempted to force it onto the trailer no one watched as a sharp piece of steal caught the front of a board. As everyone pushed, the piece of steal dug into one of our boards and began tearing a 2” wide gap down the board. By the time anyone noticed, 6′ of the board was ruined.
Elation quickly gave way to dismay as we stared at the gash we had just torn in the boat we had spent the better part of two months building. However, what happened next is a perfect illustration of why I love building and navigating batteaux
and the company of others who do the same. There is a mentality in the batteau community that with hard work and ingenuity, almost nothing is insurmountable. Rather than putting the whole boat back on the jig as I assumed we must, Ralph Smith, JRBF Chairman and veteran batteau builder assured me many such repairs had been made with the boat right side up.
We carefully rolled the boat up onto its good side, exposing the wound. The boat was held in place by ratchet straps and stakes, and we immediately went to work. Luckily, the board ripped was one of only a few 16′ long runs that were on the boat, meaning that although we lost the first 6′ we still had a substantial amount of board behind the gash. Rather than replace the whole board, we cut out the bad section, giving us a new butt joint. Just as with every tapered board on the boat, I had the crew hold the replacement board in place as I scribed the pattern from the inside of the boat. In about 45 minutes a new board was cut and nailed into position. All the while a dedicated crew stuck around, doing their duty consuming hot dogs and Rolling Rock.
The crew packed the new board with oakum, and about two hours after the accident, we were ready to put the boat on the trailer. This time we had backed the truck onto a ramp to lift the tongue, and put poplar boards over the sharp corner of steel. Round two went off without a hitch, and with relief and excitement the crew climbed aboard. We spent the rest of the night celebrating the new boat with friends and family with much of the crew eventually falling asleep on the boat.
The next morning was back to work as we set about building crows feet and walk boards. With the boat flipped we were eager to get to the water, as we risked oakum falling our if the seams opened up further. The crows feet are basically rib arms that reinforce the nosecones. In order to make a template we used a piece of insulation foam and cut it to fit. Once it was roughly in place we scribed the boards onto the foam using a fat marker. The crows feet are one piece cut out of a 16”x2 1/2” piece of oak. With the crows foot cut to meet the nosecone boards the angle that allows it to sit flush against the stem was cut. Once nailed up, the crows feet lend a great deal of stability to the nosecone.
With crows feet and walk boards built, the Mary Marshall was ready to hit the water. Carefully, we drove out of the backyard and made our way to Monacan Park, a public boat landing on a dammed section of the James. With the seams fairly open we anticipated she would take a significant amount of water in the first few hours before the boards began to swell again. It was a real thrill to watch the boat slide off the trailer, into the river that will be her home for the next month. Floating beautifully on the water the boat took surprisingly little water. With no current, we were towed downriver to the mouth of Judith Creek where the boat will sit for the next few days as we put the finishing touches on. As we stand a few days from embarking, the crew is fired up to begin the process of making our vision reality.