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Bay builder had ‘one more boat’ in him

Maynard Lowery, a Chesapeake master of wooden catboats, is remembered for his passion and instinct

Maynard Lowery, a Chesapeake master of wooden catboats, is remembered for his passion and instinct

Maynard Lowery, a builder of yacht-quality 16-foot wooden catboats, had enlisted a friend to go for a Sunday sail with him in mid-August on Maryland’s ChoptankRiver, and while the breeze moved the boat gently, it was a bit too brisk for him to get his ever-present pipe lit.

He had gone through an entire book of matches when his companion, DoakConn, took over the tiller. Then Lowery ducked his head into his personal catboat’s cabin, where he succeeded in igniting the bowl full of Prince Albert tobacco.

As the pungent smoke drifted across the water, the 88-year-old Lowery, known on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake as a raconteur nearly as much as a master wooden boatbuilder, reminisced about TilghmanIsland, the place he had called home all his life.

About 24 hours later, on Aug. 18, that productive and proclaimed life ended abruptly. State Police say Lowery, who had driven to nearby St. Michaels with his 87-year-old sister, Alma Lowery, pulled out of a shopping center into the path of a state trooper rushing to an accident. Lowery was pronounced dead in his car. Alma died a day later in an Easton, Md., hospital.

Lowery, who took a year to build a boat, had launched his latest vessel, Pyewacket, in May. His younger son, Doug, who worked with him, says Lowery was already imagining the next catboat he would build.

“He said, ‘I’m going to make some frames to put on display’ ” at a local October festival, the son recalls. That was a sign, he says, that his father was preparing to build the next catboat.

“Maynard gave me some pointers how to handle [a catboat],” says John H. Miller, an executive at the Chesapeake BayMaritimeMuseum and owner of one of Lowery’s boats. “He said, ‘John, when you pull up the halyard, don’t pull things too tight. And when you’re sailing into the wind, don’t pull the sheet in tight, because catboats like to be sailed gently.” The advice reflected his “marvelous philosophy of life,” Miller says.

Lowery was the son and grandson of men who built traditional Chesapeake Bay watercraft. He started his own boatbuilding career creating wooden workboats for the local watermen.

Lowery’s son recalls that his father’s shed on the edge of Knapps Narrows — a strait that separates Tilghman Island from the mainland and that joins the Bay with the Choptank — was a place where in winter the snow would sift through the cracks between the corrugated steel of the roof and walls, and where, when your hands turned blue, you knew it was time to go warm them at the woodstove.

Gradually, Lowery turned his attention away from workboats and toward high-end yachts, his son says. There is a list of some of Lowery’s projects. It includes a score of deadrise workboats between 1947 and 1984. There is also a 53-foot twin-screw motoryacht built in 1961 for Rogers C.B. Morton, a Maryland politician who became Interior Secretary for President Nixon and Commerce Secretary for President Ford.

Lowery sometimes built from his own designs, but just as often used the designs of others, according to friends and boating professionals who knew him. Most of his own designs were for hard-chine boats, according to Richard Scofield, who runs the Chesapeake BayMaritimeMuseum’s boatbuilding shop in St. Michaels. His catboats were built from plans for a Cape Cod catboat drafted by Fenwick Williams of Massachusetts.

Lowery was a “really wonderful person to talk to,” says Scofield, who for many years took boatbuilding apprentices on a pilgrimage to Lowery’s TilghmanIsland work shed. “He could tell good stories, had a good sense of humor, and was a very, very good boatbuilder.”

Lowery never advertised and yet always had a two-year backlog of orders, his son says. His most recent 16-foot catboat, which he built with his son, sold for $65,000 with outboard and trailer. This for a man who left school in eighth grade to help support his family.

Despite his lack of a formal education, Lowery was well-read, says Conn, who discovered Lowery’s shed after he bought a house in Tilghman and befriended the boatbuilder. “You could talk to him about history, about religion. He gave my wife a book to read about Rwanda that he thought she might like to read,” says Conn.

“He knew the mathematics of boat design,” Conn continues. “When he laid out this last catboat, I was watching him transfer dimensions from the drawing to these big white sheets of plywood. The math of that gets a little complex. When he cut the frames, they came out just like they were supposed to. He could explain it to you. When he built these boats, he could tell you before it went into the water where the waterline was going to be. He had that all figured out.

“He sang in the church choir, played the piano. He was a great friend. I always found that when I went to visit him, he always seemed happy to see me and disappointed when I left. It always felt good to visit Maynard,” Conn says.

Lowery’s other passion, besides boatbuilding and music, was flying. He was a licensed pilot since the 1960s, flying two airplanes he bought and two more he had restored, his son says.

Thomas Caplan, a novelist who has lived next door to Lowery since 1950, when his Baltimore parents bought a cabin on TilghmanIsland, eulogized his elder friend in funeral services at TilghmanUnitedMethodistChurch. “He was not just an ordinary neighbor, but a man of remarkable talents and curiosity with an instinctive understanding of, and appetite for, beauty, whether manifested in the famously graceful rise of one of his boat’s bows — by any judgment, the most perfect of any craft on the Bay — or in music, for which he had a natural aptitude, or art,” Caplan said.

“In his own work, he was a perfectionist, a man who continually applied himself, who simply would not permit himself to succumb to fatigue, whether physical or mental, or to accede to the status quo — a man who invariably sought to learn more, to do an ever-better job at whatever task was at hand.”

The MaritimeMuseum’s Miller says Lowery was “just a very decent man” and a “true gentleman.”

“He could be very gallant. He would always doff his hat [to women] in a wonderful Old World way,” Miller says. “He told many people, ‘If I can’t build another catboat, I might as well be in the graveyard.’ He’d always say, ‘I think I’ve got one more boat in me.’ ”

Lowery appeared to be slowing down in his early 80s when his knees began to deteriorate. But when he had them replaced in 2005, friends say he rebounded vigorously.

“He was an extraordinary teacher, an extraordinary father,” says Doug Lowery. “I would give anything to have an extra hour with him.”