Field Guide: The Dead of Winter


March is here.  A co-worker told me he spotted an osprey the other day.  A few optimistic buds have emerged.  Spring isn’t quite here yet, but these signs tell us that warmer days will be here soon.

For the deadrise workboat, Twilight, this spring will mark her 100th year on the water.  In her current incarnation, she serves as a floating laboratory for Echo Hill Outdoor School, taking students into the waters of the Chester River, Chesapeake Bay, and Still Pond Creek as they explore estuarine ecosystems.

Deadrise workboats, unique to the Chesapeake Bay, were designed to navigate shallow waters in order to harvest crabs, oysters, and fish.  As those organisms saw their populations decrease, the deadrise workboat has become a less common sight on the water.  Most of the workboats on the water today are made of fiberglass, which is both easier to come by and maintain.  As both economic and ecological pressures combined to drive many watermen out of business, wooden boats were sold, neglected, or altogether abandoned.  Quite a few marshes in Kent County have become the final resting place for rotting deadrises.

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This winter I got a taste of just how much work it takes to keep a wooden boat in the water for 100 years.  I joined captains Andrew McCown and Tom Briggs in the boatshed of the Chestertown Marina working to make the Twilight look (as best we could) like that day she first left port in the Potomac River in 1911.

Surrounded by fiberglass boats silently shrink-wrapped and awaiting warmer weather, the Twilight could afford no such respite.  As Captain Andy put it, “Winter work is the lifeblood that keeps these boats afloat.”

Before entering the shed the boat was scraped of barnacles and thoroughly sanded.  This allowed the wood to be thoroughly inspected for areas of concern, first by the Outdoor School’s captains and later by U.S. Coast Guard inspectors.  Finding new wood to replace trouble spots can sometimes take weeks or months.  Coming from as far away as British Columbia, the cuts of wood needed to maintain these boats can’t be found at the local lumberyard.

Shipwrights John Swain and Nick Biles assist in the more technical repairs.  After helping on a recent project, John Swain surveyed the Twilight and remarked to captains Briggs and McCown, “You guys are the reason this boat’s still here.”

Echo Hill acquired the Twilight in the early 80’s.  Reaching its centennial was only possible through a series of events that Capt. Andy describes as a “formula” for preserving wooden workboats.  First, the boat must be built by a good builder using good materials (which wasn’t always the case).  Next it must have the fortune of good ownership throughout its life.  Finally, as in the case of the Twilight, its life as a non-working boat should mimic its working life.

“There’s nothing that’s a bigger enemy to these boats than inactivity,” says McCown.  What he’s referring to is the fact that Echo Hill Outdoor School’s wooden workboats are used almost every day, which means they demand proper maintenance to ensure that they continue to perform properly.

Science has also helped the Twilight in the battle against time.  Advanced paint means that the wood is better protected from the corrosive effects of fungus, salt water, and air.  In fact, in the last few years the boat has come in to the shed in better shape than any other winter.

Capt. McCown estimates that the Twilight receives about 800-1,000 hours of maintenance every year.  This includes the major work that takes place each winter, but just as important is the weekly and daily maintenance.

“If you go down to Workboat Alley at Kent Narrows and walk the pier at the end of a workday, you can tell which boats are taken care of,” said McCown.  “Whether they’re fiberglass or wooden, the ones that are properly cared for are the ones that are going to last.”

And so, once again the Twilight has been lowered into the water; ready for another year of navigating the local waterways.  Ready for the squeals of children touching fish, eels, and crabs; often for the first time.  Ready, as always, to work.

About Dave Wheelan

Letters to Editor

  1. I think John Mann is doing a great job for the Spy! How about an article about the B&B’s of Kent County? We have run The Inn at Mitchell House for 24 years and have some funny and ghosts stories about the Inn. Thanks, Jim & Tracy Stone

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