A boy, a boat and a dream

By Jim McGuire
For Points East

As a child with a wagon, I played boat in the puddles in the schoolyard across the street from our house in the Lippitt Hill section of Providence. I also used the wagon to go around my neighborhood collecting wood. I would go knocking on doors, asking for unwanted wood so I could build a boat.

The wood collection lasted for three or four years, and that pile of lumber looked pretty impressive to me. I wasn’t sure what I would do with the 18-inch logs, the two-by-fours and two-by-sixes, or the wagonload of old plaster laths. But I knew, somehow, I would make a real boat out of them all. Alas, when I was 10, my parents and I moved from Providence to East Providence, and my wood collection stayed behind, never to be used to build my boat.

In East Providence I was within walking distance of the Seekonk River. At 10 years of age, I was allowed to travel to the East Providence Boat Yard in the old oyster house. Now, being older, near the water, still wanting a boat, and being more inquisitive, I asked my father why my wood pile never got big enough to build a boat. My father told me that we heated the kitchen of the house with a kerosene/gas stove combination, but when we had company, or it was exceptionally cold, he fueled a central firebox hot-air heater in the dirt cellar with my wood. Mystery solved.

But now that we lived in East Providence, my boatbuilding career took on a new life. I was 11 and “working” for Butch and Buster at the boatyard. Some days, I made $2 picking up junk around the yard. Upon occasion, I scored real big bucks, and got to clean the bilge of an old Navy picket boat. I was a small kid, and I actually could get under an engine.

With my new cash flow, I decided it was time to go for the big time and build the boat of my dreams. I had also discovered a new building material instead of pieces of two-by-fours and two-by-sixes: plywood. I could almost make the whole bottom of my 12-foot dreamboat with one big piece of it. Just by happenstance, the Interstate Highway System was being built through East Providence one block away from my house. Most of the plywood used in my boat construction was, not surprisingly, covered with concrete on one side, but there was at least one good side for the outside of the boat.

I designed a 12-foot by four-foot, flat-bottom boat. The bottom was three-quarter-inch plywood with a scab joint; the sides were quarter-inch plywood, concrete side in. As I recall, 60 years later, the biggest problem was that, when I made the transom, I envisioned a boat with flared sides. I attached the transom to the bottom with a two-by-four, and the sides with a piece of something that would bend along the shape of the bottom, like a batten. I discovered that when the hull shape has flair and the bottom is pancake flat, things do not just bend happily into place. Thus, the sides were a little short and at a bit of an angle.

I created some sort of stem out of plywood to close the gap that formed at the top where port and starboard sides met poorly at the bow. I used my hard-earned cash to buy the best brass screws and Phenoseal to caulk the boat. By now my learning curve was straight up, and I soon found that I needed frames to keep the sides from buckling and something called “gunwales” along the top edges, with holes in them to stick an oar lock.

I launched the boat at the East Providence Yacht Club, and two friends and I set off for the Seekonk River. The boat leaked quite badly, and my friends were heroic in their bailing efforts, while I rowed. We all prayed for the hull to swell up quickly. We passed under the low section of the old New Haven railroad bridge, carried by the outgoing tide more than my rowing.

Suddenly the stern sank deeper into the water, and I saw that my bowman was hanging on to the bridge girders and scrambling up to safety. The stern suddenly rose inexplicably, and I turned aft to see the feet of my other friend disappearing up onto the tracks as well. I drifted on with the current, managing to hit the shallows near the beach before my dream boat foundered. My former crew helped me pull the S.S. Merry Open Bottom up on the beach at Bold Point.

Lessons learned: 1) Don’t give crew an opportunity to safely flee a sinking ship because history will repeat itself; 2) Caulk the boat during assembly, not after, and not on the outside; and 3) Read a book about boatbuilding before you start building a boat.

As I got a little older and developed an interest in girls, I found two particularly attractive, but they lived out of town. I lived in East Providence and they lived in Barrington. Both towns are on Narragansett Bay, and it was a relatively long bike ride between the two towns. So while my friends (yes, the same two “rats” who abandoned me) made plans to ride down to the girls on their bikes, I decided to go by boat. The 12-footer I’d built years before had now been fiber-glassed, and sported a 22 hp Mercury outboard.

Long story short: I hit a rock approaching the beach off Mosher Drive in Barrington. (A chart probably would have been helpful.) With the boat taking on water, I dragged it above the high-water mark. Although I did eventually meet up with the girls, at that point they were no longer the focus of my attention. My friends showed up within the hour and scooped them up, anyhow! So there I was, shipwrecked and heartbroken again.

The real surprise came when Mr. Mosher (of same said Mosher Drive) came down to see who was flirting with his daughters and hammering a piece of plywood to an upside-down skiff on the beach. At this point a whole new adventure in my life began. Mr. Mosher was a boater and a do-it-yourself, hands-on type of guy. He admired my handy work for a moment, and then took me to his shop for the right tools and patching materials. The relationship with Joe Mosher continued for 25 years of boat talk, solar-home building and friendship. His daughter eventually married, but not to me or either of my friends. Joe would by now be nearing 100 years of age, and, as fate takes many paths, we all moved on in different directions.

Jim is a retired college professor and a retired USCG chief petty officer. He and his wife, Dede, are lifelong cruisers under both sail and power, and they plan their adventures out of East Greenwich, R.I.