It’s 5 o’clock one cool, misty September morning on Crab Alley Creek. The fog is so thick we have to feel our way upstream in our weather-beaten skiff, using the sound from the cantankerous outboard bouncing off the shoreline.
When the sun begins to burn through, my father and I start laying down our 1,000-foot, eel-baited trotline along a drop-off in the creek bed, hoping some crabs will be feeding along it. As we finish, the translucent outline of a workboat glides by in the fog. Once she’s astern of us, an arbitrary beam of sunlight breaks through the haze, illuminating her elegant reverse stern.
That stern is one of the most beautiful design elements I’ve ever seen on a boat. What we saw that morning was a Hooper Island dovetail, more widely known as a draketail. It’s a design unique to the Dorchester County/Hooper Island area of Chesapeake Bay. Long, lean and graceful, these boats have a striking reverse stern that sets them apart from most hard-edged deadrise working craft on the Bay. The design cue is so stunning that modern builders have replicated it in a handful of cruising powerboats over the years.
When I found out that the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland, was building one from scratch, I had to stop by for a closer look.
Sail, Steam and Naphtha
Before the advent of the internal combustion engine, most Chesapeake Bay workboat designs were influenced by their modes of propulsion. Since both sail- and steam-engine-driven hulls had to be slippery and efficient — sailing vessels for obvious reasons and because of the relatively low horsepower of smaller steam engines — they often had a healthy dose of dugout canoe in their DNA. Dugout canoes were the efficient hull shapes Native Americans used to ply the Bay for oysters, clams, fish and crabs. European settlers eventually adapted the canoe designs and building techniques for their own workboats.
Around the turn of the last century, small internal-combustion engines that ran on naphtha began to show up in boats. This allowed boatbuilders to toy with new designs. “When watermen no longer needed to rely on sails or boats with steam engines — using small, naphtha-fueled engines instead — the design philosophy tilted on its axis a bit,” says Pete Lesher, chief curator of Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. “The Hooper Island draketail was developed for trotlining for crabs and hand-tonging for oysters. Since the naphtha and gasoline engines were still relatively lackluster in the power department, the draketail design was conceived with efficiency in mind. That led to the long, slender profile. The reverse stern and narrow beam are cues taken from Navy torpedo boat and powerboat racing designs. The reverse stern adds additional buoyancy aft, and it lengthens the waterline.”
Hundreds of the boats were built in the Hooper Island area for crabbing and oystering watermen, and a handful were constructed on Broomes Island, almost directly across the Bay on the Patuxent River. “I’ve tried to specifically nail down how many survive today, but that turned out to be a difficult task,” Lesher says. “The best number I can give today is that 10 to 20 of them survive. As engines got bigger and more powerful, so did the workboats they powered.”
Across the museum campus from Lesher’s office, Jenn Kuhn is in the museum’s rickety-looking but warm and picturesque boat shop. She’s running her hands along the mahogany toe rail of Pintail, the Hooper Island-style draketail she’s building with the help of volunteer museum members.
Kuhn is animated and spunky, with a slight rasp to her voice that gives her a rugged quality. Her graceful-looking yet weathered hands show the toll that a love of restoring and building wooden boats takes. Head of the museum’s “Apprentice for a Day” program, Kuhn enlists the help of volunteers who pay a small fee to learn the ropes of boatbuilding. Once the boats are completed, they’re sold. Proceeds benefit the museum.
Work on Pintail began in January 2016. She’s framed in white oak with Atlantic white cedar planking and sassafras decking. Brightwork, including the toe rail and certain interior accouterments, are mahogany. Pintail was built upside-down on a strongback — a jig of sorts that her framing and planking were built around to help form her hull shape. Once the hull planking and framing were complete, Pintail was flipped upright, and the essential components of the strongback were removed.
Next, work on her deck and other structures began. “Traditionally many of these boats were built by first burying the stem and stern post firmly in the ground before a long keelson was fastened between them,” Lesher says. “After that, ribs, other framing and then planks were added before the structure was rolled over.”
Brushing aside the boat shop cat and museum mascot, Edna Sprit, who’s climbing on the foredeck, Kuhn says, “Pintail measures out at 25 feet long with a 4-foot-2-inch beam. She draws just 18 inches.”
Pushing Pintail along will be a single-cylinder, 14-hp Yanmar diesel mated to a traditional stainless-steel shaft and prop. “We chose stick steering for Pintail,” Kuhn says. “It’s just like many of the originals had, making it easy for a singlehanded skipper to work his trotline, netting crabs with one hand and easily steering with the other by simply nudging a stick.”
Pintail should be completed by late spring or early summer. Kuhn and her volunteers plan to finish the topsides in classic white paint, and she’ll have a few coats of red bottom paint to provide contrast. Pintail will be a bit more prettied up than her predecessors, and she’ll look great on the water.
The best part? She’ll be offered for sale at $32,000. Were my dad still alive, I’d buy her so we could go crabbing again. Then we’d be the ones drawing all the attention on Crab Alley Creek in the morning fog.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.