Tetra twins

Master boatbuilder Dick Eldridge breathes new life into a design legacy. Photo by Christopher Birch

May 2022

By Christopher Birch

My new friend, Dick Eldridge, just built a rowboat, and Points East magazine is to blame. I’ve made mention of a favorite red rowboat in the pages of this magazine on several occasions. Dick read my ramblings on the merits of the design and decided that he too had to build one. And so he did.

Dick explained to me that his sweetheart likes to row. Trouble is, she found their old boat too heavy and difficult to drag back up the beach near where they keep her on Buzzards Bay. The idea of a smaller, lighter boat appealed, and Dick was determined to build his gal a better boat. He has a well-equipped shop, and at 90 years of age, he brought a wealth of experience with boats and building to the project.

My history with this rowboat is rich with memories and personal milestones. Hull number 1 came off the strongback my father built from a Steve Redmond design named Tetra back in 1999. After the first boat was complete, and widely celebrated within our family, I built two more reusing my father’s lofting work. The strongback sat idle for a few years, then Dick borrowed it last fall and soon another Tetra was born.

The first boat, built by my father, was christened Heidi. She has seen near-constant use since construction in 1999 and is still going strong today. In total, I calculate she has been rowed or towed over 37,000 nautical miles. I towed her to Canada behind my boat just last summer and plan to press her back into service again this year.

I built the second boat, Jenny, and painted her red like the first. Delivery of this boat to Martha’s Vineyard was a memorable voyage completed by oar on her own bottom. Last I checked she’s still there. A winsome photo of the boat with a dog onboard appeared on the front page of the Vineyard Gazette back in July of 2012. The caption read, “Row Faster, The Catboat is Gaining.”

The third boat, named Mexico, was painted red like the first two. Aside from her color, she was quite different. I built Mexico to be pedal-powered and prop-driven. The pedaler sits in the recumbent position and faces forward. My modest goal was to reinvent yachting. I envisioned a world where everyone pedaled their tenders instead of rowing them. People don’t like to row, I reasoned, because they can’t see where they’re going, and half the time they don’t know how to row anyway. Outboard motors are such a pain in so many ways. Pedal power was going to be the solution. I basked in my revolutionary status, telling people, “This is going to be the end of the oar.” As they say in the recumbent bike world, “Once you go bent, you never go back.” My rightful place in the Naval Architecture Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Herreshoff, Alden, and Paine was assured. I began composing my induction speech before the boat even splashed.

But Mexico had issues. The sprawling recumbent position stretched the operator out along nearly the entire length of the boat. Aside from the pedaler, there was room for exactly zero passengers. Still, she was a pretty cool tender for the solo sailor.

But there were more issues. The amidships prop/outdrive configuration was entirely unprotected; thus, a beaching would result in the total destruction of the boat and her drive system. This further narrowed her “great tender” status to the solo sailor who had no intention of ever going ashore. Someday I’ll work on a second draft of this design, but for now, my place in that Naval Architecture Hall of Fame is precarious and the oar lives on.

Dick knew enough not to mess with a good thing and built his boat as she was designed. She’s an exceptional rowboat. The hull is low, lean, and light. She tracks straight thanks to her hard chine, full keel, and significant skeg. Lapstrake plywood construction keeps her stiff with minimal framing. Dick’s meticulous workmanship produced a handsome example of the Tetra design. I’m so glad he decided to paint her red like the others.

It’s rewarding for me to see a hull form so central to my life, born anew in a stranger’s shop. Points East magazine has built a community along the New England waterfront. We read, write, and enjoy boats together–even in winter. This new red boat is a testament to the magazine’s ability to share ideas and to connect us wharf rats around them.

Dick put in steady work and completed the construction of his boat quickly. But winter was lingering, and decent rowing weather was a ways off. Not the type of man to retire from industry early in the season, Dick wanted more building and more boats. The strongback was wheeled back out into the middle of his shop, lumber is being shaped, and a twin will soon be born.

Having built two of these boats myself, I understand how addictive they can become. But I also suspect a deeper motive for constructing a second boat was at play. Talking with my new Points East friend, I sensed a competitive streak hidden beneath his dedicated boat-builder facade. Dick and his gal need two boats, I surmise, because: Racing.

All they need now are four perfect oars – spoons, of course, for speed.

Christopher Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston, Mass., where he’s been building, maintaining and restoring boats for the past 34 years.