Small boats can make big magic
Sure you can travel the world in a big motoryacht, a sturdy trawler or a bluewater sailboat.
But it would be hard to top the adventure Chris Hyfield and his 2-year-old son, Alex, had in their 14-foot rowboat, Thistle, on a brisk October day last fall. "We launched at Odiorne Point State Park at Witch Creek and rowed through the anchorage in Little Harbor," says Hyfield, 43, an electrical engineer from Rye, N.H.
"I rowed Alex by some boats that I thought had nice lines in the hopes to instill in him what quality, form and function looked like. The only other boats on the water were a few kayaks and one workboat near the Wentworth Hotel marina. We rowed near the breakwater to look at some fishermen and then beached Thistle for a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crackers and a couple of peaches."
The two explored the lonely, windswept strand until the autumn chill forced them back on board for the last row home. It was the kind of day that a young boating father dreams of, says Hyfield.
"I really enjoy getting out on the water with my son," he says. "It provides us with one-on-one time and we will build memories that he can pass on. He enjoys boating and, by taking him out, I'll be able to teach him to respect wind, water and weather."
Their vessel for this voyage of discovery? A Peapod dory built some 50 years ago in Brooklin, Maine, by the legendary Jimmy Steele and restored by Hyfield in a rewarding backyard project. "The peapod is a great boat for kids," says Hyfield, who bought the dory in 2006 for a little more than $3,000.
"The boat is sturdy, stable and seakindly and rows very well. It has two rowing stations so I plan to get some small oars made for Alex so he can help Dad get out to the fishing grounds." At around 125 pounds, the trailerable boat is light enough for Hyfield to launch and haul himself.
A timeless classic
Peapods evolved as a coastal lobster boat in Maine a century or more ago. The dory-like boats were double-ended, which meant they could be rowed forward or backward while always presenting a "stern" to following seas.
When motorized lobster boats came along, the peapod was still used as a general utility craft and tender. "I believe the virtues of the peapod are what make it a timeless classic; its shape, its design, its durability and its functionality," says Hyfield. And they're just nice to gaze on, too. "In my opinion, to look at one is like looking at a piece of art."
Steele's name is well-known around Blue Hill, Maine. He built "the best peapods around" starting in the 1960s and worked right up until just a few years ago, when he contracted bone cancer. "After having the opportunity to meet Jimmy in his shop, I can see that his spirit is in the boats he built," says Hyfield. "His boats have a yin-and-yang quality to them: simple yet elegant, strong yet frail, a sign of ancient times yet very functional in the modern world."
Hyfield's Peapod was the 93rd of more than 175 that Steele built in his 40-plus years of work and had been a tender to the Concordia yawl, Thistledown. It had been out of the water for about five years, stored in a shed at Brooklin Boat Yard. No matter that it needed some work, Hyfield was smitten.
"When I saw the boat on the rack, I didn't think about the work involved at all," says Hyfield. "I wanted that boat, period."
He took delivery in May 2006 and started work. "I had no idea what I had in store," says Hyfield. "Because the boat is so well-built I probably could have swelled it up and used it that first season, but I wanted to restore it the right way."
The first big job was removing the old caulk and seam compound and recaulking the bottom, which had opened up during storage. Hyfield then sanded and painted the topsides, hand-lettered the Peapod's new name, Thistle, on the stern, and stenciled a thistle graphic on the bow.
"I got it in the water in July of 2006 and used it only a couple of times," says Hyfield. "That winter, I put the boat on furniture dollies in the basement and scraped, sanded and repainted the interior. Then I attacked the job of sanding down all of the varnish." After four coats of varnish, Thistle was ready for the 2007 season.
Launch day was great, says Hyfield. He splashed the Peapod in the Patchogue River in Westbrook, Conn., which empties into Long Island Sound, and rowed it through Pilot's Point Marina, with its population of large poweryachts, he says.
"I had a great smile on my face as the owners complimented me on my boat," he says. "Many asked if I had built it and time and again I proudly said that it was a Jimmy Steele Peapod from Brooklin, Maine."
Since then Hyfield has trailered the boat all over the place and looks forward to "cruising" the New Hampshire and Maine coasts. "I even picked up a couple of lobster traps and I intend on getting a personal lobster permit so I can lobster the way they did in the late 1800s," he says.
Along the way Hyfield expects more "Peapod moments."
That means "getting out on the water and feeling like I am connected to history," Hyfield says. "Feeling confident that my boat can handle rough water and get into areas other boats can't, which allows me to explore untold waterways. Powering the boat through the water with long spruce oars is a gratification that is hard to measure. Dropping the anchor or pulling up on a beach to relax and enjoy the view or spending time on the water with my son, those are real 'Peapod moments.' "
See related article:
This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the March 2010 issue.