By Greg Cook
Images by Karen Ristuben
Funded by ECCF’s Creative County Initiative, this Skiff & Basket project brings a piece of Essex history and cultural heritage back to life. It was made possible by training a group of vocational students in hands-on building skills and life lessons, giving them new appreciation for teamwork and confidence as individuals.
On a recent damp morning, four students from the Northshore Education Consortium’s Topsfield Vocational Academy were busy helping construct an Essex clamming skiff at the Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum. It was probably the first time anyone had built one of these vessels in about a century.
“This boat is a replica of the boat hanging on the wall. That one was lent to us by [Essex shipbuilder] Harold Burnham,” says Christopher Stepler, Operations Administrator for the museum. The skiff had been hanging up in Burnham’s barn, having been in his family since new. “It belonged to his great aunt. We believe it was built in the 1920s. It’s the last known example of an Essex clamming skiff. … A lot of these boats only had to last a few years. Then you could throw it away and start all over again.”
Essex clamming skiffs were icons of the town. You might call them symbols of its clamming soul. Historically, they were ubiquitous knockabout utility boats. They were designed so a single person could row it out to the Essex clam flats. It would sit in the mud as the tide went out and they dug clams. Then they’d use the skiff to haul their catch back in. The skiff was light enough for one person to drag it back up the beach when they returned. “If you start looking at old waterfront photographs in the area, you’ll see small boats like this,” says Jeff Lane, a boat builder and instructor at the museum.
The skiff building is part of the museum’s “By Skiff and Basket” project, funded by a grant from the Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative. Supported by Boston’s Barr Foundation, the initiative aims to mobilize North Shore artists, arts organizations and community and business leaders to enhance life in Essex County.
Students will launch and row the skiff on Friday, May 31, with the high tide around 10 a.m. The museum will offer public workshops teaching how to create traditional Essex clam baskets on May 19, June 23 and Sept. 8 and 15. And the skiff will be featured in an exhibition about the history of Essex clamming technology that is scheduled to debut June 8.
“This is what people have been building here for like ever,” Topsfield Vocational Academy student James Desmond of Rockport says. “It will be cool to see it all come together.”
“We’re still carrying on these historical methods,” Susannah Winder, Education and Group Program Coordinator for the museum, says, “but using them today.”
Those Skills Are Still Attainable
The Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum’s shipyard sits off Main Street in Essex, right on the bank of the Essex River. Here the Story family built boats from 1813 to the end of World War II. The society bought the property in 1993 and has maintained it as a working facility for building, repairing and launching vessels.
A couple of years or so ago, about halfway down the shipyard, one of the buildings sprouted a workshop—a sort of tent of plastic shrink-wrap stretched over a frame of wood and PVC pipes. “It’s crude and unattractive to look at, but cheap and effective,” Lane says.
The workshop smells of turpentine and smoke from the wood stove in the corner, which has kept the space heated over the winter. In the middle of the dirt floor stands a low platform upon which a revolving crew of about 10 Topsfield Vocational Academy students have been constructing the Essex clamming skiff since last fall.
“It’s getting the kids to buy into something and follow through and complete a project,” says Mark Webster, a woodshop instructor at the vocational school alternative education program, which serves middle and high school students from 10 public school districts across the area.
At the school woodshop in Topsfield, they build beds, bureaus, armoires, tables and doghouses for homes, police departments and fire departments. (If the school ops to take a project on, they only charge for the materials.) The school also offers training in automotive, veterinary, metal shop, and childcare work. And they’ve got a full culinary arts program. Webster says, “Our goal is to get them a diploma, get them some experience, get them a job reference, and get them on their way.”
This is the third year the academy has partnered with the museum. Previously, Webster brought students to help build a Grand Banks dory for Gloucester’s Schooner Adventure and helped maintain the Essex Shipbuilding Museum’s Schooner Lewis H. Story.
“In the woodshop, you’re making furniture,” student James Desmond says. “But this is something you can use, ride.”
“It’s not just building a boat,” Webster says. “It’s teaching them some more work ethics.” They put math to practical use. “We learn about the history of boat building and how people lived back in the day and what was involved.”
“The old ways, like the clinch nails,” Topsfield Vocational Academy student Justin Barnes of Lawrence says. “They’re nails here that they bend up to hold a piece of wood.”
“It’s a great project for these guys to work on because it’s simple enough to grasp, but it’s complex enough that it’s challenging. It’s almost entirely hand-tool work. Which is great experience. But it also ties it into the history of it,” Lane says. “I really feel they get a better idea of how things were built in the past. … Those skills are still attainable. Those skills are still here. We’re not that removed from the knowledge of those skills.”
Keep This Boat Honest
Historically, Essex clamming skiffs were constructed in small boatyards throughout Essex and up and down the coast. The students and adults began constructing their replica by studying Burnham’s old skiff. Via a process known as “lofting,” Lane says, “these guys took the lines off of that boat, which is recording its measurements and its shape. Then they drew it out full size on the bench over here.”
Students made patterns of the frames—or interior ribs—then went looking for those shapes in living oak trees around town that folks allowed them to harvest. “If you look closely, you can see the frame follows the curve. That’s where the trunk branched out into a limb,” Lane says. “They are two pieces, which was typical of that type of construction in that time period. You have to join them somehow because trees don’t grow in U shapes.”
The side planking and bottom are pine from “local tree companies when they have to take them out of people’s yards,” Lane says. “Almost all the wood was milled right here on site or adjacent to our site.”
They’ve built the skiff from the stem of locust wood that forms the bow to the transom that forms the back wall.
The in-progress skiff sits on a building bed, with the vessel held in place by 2×4 props pressing down from ceiling beams. “You bend the rocker into the boat. The rocker is the curve in the bottom of the boat. … So the building bed has pins in it that hold the bow and stern up. That’s where the props come in, to hold the middle shape of the curve, the rocker,” Lane says. With a curved bottom, the skiffs “row nicer. It makes for a better boat. You want the ends of the boat out of the water, or almost out of the water. … Because if you’re dragging the stern through the water that stern causes a lot of drag. You need some depth just to carry some weight, but you want the ends out of the water as much as you can.”
“Then on to your planking,” Lane says. “There are three planks on each side of this particular boat. … They overlap. It’s called lapstrake. There’s a bevel cut into the top of the preceding plank. Then you have to mach that bevel to the next plank.”
“We plane the top of it to make it at an angle,” Topsfield Vocational Academy student James Desmond explains. “Then we overlap the two pieces. Then we use the clinch nails to connect the two.”
Compared to carvel planking, in which a hull is composed of boards that abut each other with cotton pressed between to seal the seams, lapstrake construction saves in planks and framing and creates “a skin that has some structure of its own,” Lane says. “These boats were built like this because it was faster and more efficient.”
The planks are fastened together with clinch nails, sometimes spelled clench nails. Lane says, “We have bronze ring nails, which come from real factories, but these copper clinch nails come from Strawbery Banke [Museum] in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They’re still running antique nail machines. They start with a sheet of copper and can bang these out.”
Clinch nails “get folded over on the inside, so they’re almost like a staple. That way it has excellent holding power,” Lane says. “The two planks you’re fastening are very thin. … There’s not a lot of wood there to grab. By folding it over and fastening it on the inside, you’re making a much stronger joint.”
As April came to a close, the students were working on the skiff’s risers, which hold up the seat. They had only to construct the seat, a false stem for the bow, a kind of mini keel called a skeg, and some stiffening braces called quarter knees and the breast hook.
Along with the skiff project, beginning May 19, the Shipbuilding Museum will offer public workshops on how to construct clamming baskets of the early 20th century based on instructions from Maine craftsman Billy Ray Sims. They’re built from galvanized wire with white oak splits woven through the top. (Today clammers tend to use plastic grocery hand baskets and then empty the clams into a mesh bag like an onion sack.)
“We don’t know when the last Essex clam basket was made,” Stepler says. “They were in use until something better came along. It is a transition that has no firm date. Just like when they started putting outboard motors on the skiffs and moved to aluminum, it has no firm date.”
When the replica Essex clamming skiff is finished, the museum plans to have Ian MacDougall “row down the river using the boat and baskets and dig a tide of clams and come back on the rising tide,” Stepler says. “It will be the first trip using one of these boats and the baskets together for decades. … It’s a symbolic connection of the past and the present. It’s a way to keep this boat and these baskets honest. If we didn’t get the boat disgusting and muddy and full of clams … I wouldn’t feel as good about it. It’s just that little bit of historic integrity. If you build a beautiful working boat and then you don’t work with it, as a museum dedicated to preserving the history of Essex and the shipyards and the industry that worked here, it doesn’t feel complete.”
“By Skiff and Basket” project: https://www.essexshipbuilding.org/by-skiff-and-basket-project
Topsfield Vocational Academy: https://www.nsedu.org/schools/topsfield-vocational-academy/