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Wooden boat lover chief of volunteers keeping historic boat-building alive in Deltaville

Wooden boat lover chief of volunteers keeping historic boat-building alive in Deltaville

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DELTAVILLE—One of the best things about the Deltaville Maritime Museum on the Middle Peninsula is the way it quite literally keeps the region’s boat-building history alive.

John England is the main man doing that, building everything from crab skiffs to Chesapeake Bay deadrises in a shop dedicated to crafting boats the way it’s been done in the region since the 1800s.

This spring, he and a host of volunteers and hired contractors made a big step forward by expanding and improving the wooden boat-building shop, partly so bigger and longer boats can be built there.

“And that can now happen with the doors closed and heat provided,” said England with a smile. “We work through the winter, but before this, we’d have to pick our days so we wouldn’t freeze while we worked.”

A budget of about $35,000 allowed framing and metal roofing, concrete and cinder-block work, windows and siding, electrical work and new lighting, insulation, stairs to an attic storage and a paint room.

I visited England at the shop a while back to find out why he was so committed to keeping alive the techniques that made Deltaville and Middlesex County a hotbed for the construction of the wooden boats used by watermen on the Chesapeake Bay.

“It’s really a part of the museum’s mission, and with the expanded shop we’ll be able build boats in here, especially larger ones we couldn’t do before,” he said.

The Massachusetts native came to Virginia in the 1960s to work at the Newport News Shipyard. He visited Urbanna a few years later, and moved there to work for a boat-builder. Eventually, he shifted to building homes.

England, whose title is volunteer boat shop director, said he started building wooden boats in his 20s, and that since moving to the Middle Peninsula, he’s been “fascinated by the work boats of the Chesapeake and the way they are built.”

He said that the type he’s building now, a craft called a Chesapeake Bay deadrise, is typically long and narrow with a sharp vertical entry at the bow and the V hull at the front flattening out where the boat widens.

“A deadrise cuts into the sharp chop of the Bay, which is different from the rolling seas out in the ocean where waves come father apart,” said England. He added that the name comes from the fact that you can “draw a dead-straight line at any point along the bottom of the hull as it rises from the keel to the chine.”

England works in the same type of woods—white pine, heart pine and juniper—used then, and has studied boats built by well-known craftsmen in the region, in some cases, decades earlier.

“In one case, I’ve been assisted by grandsons of one of those builders,” he said, noting that the practice helps make sure that visitors who can watch the construction are seeing living history that’s as accurate as he can make it.

England pointed out that the boats he and a handful of other volunteers are building are typically outfitted with outboard engines and sold, the proceeds going toward the operation of the boat shop, future boats and the museum.

He noted that while he’s been able to build some smaller skiffs, he’s looking forward to building a Bay deadrise closer to the 28- to 38-foot lengths popular with watermen.

“They’d talk to a builder and tell them the specifics they wanted—how much freeboard, a rounded or square stern, different widths and other aspects of the boat, depending on what they were going to use it for: oystering, fishing or what have you,” said England.

He noted that the work was typically done on shore, often where the boat-builder lived, using simple construction tools and techniques handed down from generation to generation.

“They often had hulls that were cross-planked for strength,” he said. The boat was often started bottom up and then flipped when the work reached a certain point, something that could require help from a host of volunteers and the right sort of supports.

When it came time to get them in the water, special wooden “trailers” were used. They were really little more than wheels on a frame that adjusted to the boat size. It was attached under the boat and then pulled to a railway for launching.

England noted that the thing that really pulled him into helping at the boat shop was a mammoth project started at the Deltaville museum in 2005, the reconstruction of a log-built, Poquoson-style buyboat called the F.D. Crockett.

Practically derelict when donated, the boat had been sunk several times and was in need of extensive reconstruction that included rebuilding a wheelhouse and decks and renovating a hull with a process that made sure to reuse its nine original 6-inch-thick logs.

The project took five years with England at the helm, and today the Crockett is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sails as an ambassador of the Chesapeake Bay.

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415 rhedelt@freelancestar.com

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Here for more than four decades, I'm a feature columnist out and about seeing what people are thinking and sharing what interesting things they're doing.

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