A Life In Boats
When I was a kid, almost every boat was built of wood, and rowing was how you got out to your mooring. Now inflatables have replaced just about every oar-powered pram, dinghy and dory.
In our family, the progression for young boaters was clear and unvarying for seven children: learn to swim before you could row, learn to row before you could sail, learn to sail before you could use a powerboat.
My sister Gen and her friend Carol were rowing machines. They would row a mile from the Sauga Point peninsula in North Kingstown, R.I., to the town library at Wickford, which conveniently had its own dock. With books in hand and a picnic lunch, they would row up Mill Cove to a small island — basically a large rock — that served as their reading room for completing their school’s summer reading list.
I’ve always liked to row, and when a wonderful gentleman, Dan Cushman, offered me a chance to row his 20-foot Whitehall skiff around Wickford Harbor, I jumped at it. I had rowed one with my small children many years ago at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and remember the experience as special.
My wife, Abby, and I packed some snacks and off we went. It took a few strokes to get the hull moving after we left the dock, but once it did, with its gentle entry and long skeg, it just glided through the water and tracked beautifully. Passing boaters called out to us asking what we were rowing, some tooting horns and others giving us a thumbs- up.?A Whitehall is pleasing to the eye. With its lovely lines and wine-glass transom, it attracts attention like a pretty sister in a white dress at Boy Scout camp on Sunday.
Whitehalls were first built on Whitehall Street in Manhattan, a short time after the War of 1812, according to Wickford’s highly regarded boatwright George Zachorne, who has restored and maintained more than a few Whitehalls. (He actually built a replica of the one owned by Newport’s famed lighthouse keeper and rescue angel Ida Lewis.) They served as the “bicycle of the seas” in that they could quickly transport people and goods around harbors.
Pilots used them to be the first to reach incoming vessels to secure the piloting fee. Merchants used them to see about brokering cargo or supplying provisions to vessels. The first to greet a ship as it entered a busy harbor was likely to do a tidy business, hence the need for the kind of boat such as the Whitehall — often powered by three sets of oars and very motivated oarsmen.
Whitehalls typically range from 14 to 22 feet and require two or three rowers. They are usually carvel-planked, as opposed to lapstrake, and older specimens often were constructed with “knees” cut from fruit trees or hackmatack roots known for their rot resistance.
Whitehalls in the 18-foot range are pretty stable, though the shorter ones are less so. Nevertheless, according to John Gardner, the dean of American small-boat craftsmen, a 12- or 13-foot Whitehall is still a far better rowing option than “any of the scurvy tubs that pass for rowboats today.” And although it’s true that this hull in various lengths can be sailed, Zachorne believes they all do this best off the wind.
How Dan Cushman came by his Whitehall is an interesting story. His son Jeff saw it advertised in Soundings while he was stationed in Iraq. It represented those things that troops focus on as a symbol of normalcy and the life left behind. The family back home visited Bayshore, N.Y., in 2004 to check it out. What they found was a true cedar-on-oak Whitehall faithful in every detail to those of the early 19th century, built by Walter Stein, whose consultant was none other than John Gardner. It was a labor of love for Stein, requiring 20 years to complete, and I can tell you first-hand that if this boat could be brought back to the New York or Boston of the 1850s no waterman would suspect it wasn’t built recently in a local yard.
Anyone who grew up in or around boats knows how they can soothe and bring great pleasure. All other thoughts are pushed aside when you’re trimming sails, steering a course, rowing a Whitehall, evaluating wind and tide and weather. When Dan’s son returned home — a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient — the Whitehall was waiting to play its role in helping him heal in a way that only a boat can do.
Greg Coppa is a freelance writer and lifelong boater whose short story “November Christmas” was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. His “November Christmas and Other Short Stories” is available on Amazon.com.
June 2014 issue