Bay Workboats

Over the past 400 years, distinctive types of boats have been developed for seafood harvesting and shipping on the Bay. Take a look:

History of the Peg Wallace
By Ralph Kenat. Relevant details and history provided by Jeff Holland, director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum

The Peg Wallace, photo by Bob Cowan

Draketails: When seeing the Peg Wallace for the first time, almost everyone comments on how different she seems; how graceful and elegant her lines are; how unlike most workboats she is. If you thought these things yourself, you are right. The Peg Wallace really is different. She is one of only fifteen surviving Hooper Island Draketails. Draketail workboats (which were also sometimes called “dovetails” or “torpedo sterns”) are characterized by being long and narrow (their length is usually about six times their beam width, compared to a ratio of about 3 or 4 to 1 for typical workboats) and they have a rounded stern with a dramatic inverted rake that resembles the aft end of a duck that gives the type its name.

Photo by Ralph Kenat

The first Draketails were made on Hooper Island in Dorchester County on Maryland’s eastern shore some time between 1910 and 1915. After the first appearance, the Draketail design was widely copied around the Chesapeake and examples could be found in Virginia as well as Maryland, but most Draketails were made on Hooper Island and the name of Hooper Island is still associated with the style of boat no matter where it was actually constructed. The distinctive draketail form was possibly patterned after the steam powered torpedo boats made for the Navy around the turn of the century. Others argue that it was probably the much smaller, wooden speedboats that first appeared in the first decade of the century that inspired the boat builders on Hooper Island. Whatever the inspiration, the Hooper Island Draketails were the first Chesapeake workboats specifically designed as powerboats. The earliest powered workboats were based on older sail-powered designs – particularly log canoes or skipjacks – that were adapted for use with engines. These earliest engine-powered boats had two problems: they were too slow to “get up on a plane” and skim across the surface of the water, reducing drag and increasing speed; their sterns tended to settle or “squat” in the water at higher speeds. The long, narrow hull and the distinctive inverted stern of the Draketail were solutions to these problems. When Draketails first appeared the largest marine engines available were one or two cylinder engines capable of producing 5 to 15 horsepower. Even with these small engines the Hooper Island boats could achieve speeds of 10 knots, which were unheard of at the time. Once larger engines became commonly available, later versions of the Draketails were widened to accommodate the larger engines and also, since drag could be overcome with more horsepower, the narrow beam of the original Draketails was no longer necessary.

Deadrise Boats: Despite their distinctive features Draketails like the Peg Wallace were built on the basic “deadrise” design that is dominant among wooden Chesapeake Bay workboats. In the deadrise design the planks that form the bottom of the boat are rabbeted into the Keelson – the long, carved timber that forms the “spine” of the boat. From the Keelson the bottom planks are run across the width of the bottom (instead of running the length of the boat) to rise and meet the Chine log, which connects the bottom of the boat to the sides. These construction features can clearly be seen in the midsection of the Miss Lonesome on exhibit in the Museum. This deadrise and cross-planked construction gives the hull below the water line the shallow “V” shape common to all deadrise boats.

Keelson, inside the Annapolis Maritime Museum, photo by Ralph Kenat

Chine log, inside Annapolis Maritime Museum

V-bottom on the Miss Lonesome, inside Annapolis Maritime Musuem

These construction techniques were developed elsewhere and apparently were brought south as Yankee oystermen moved to the Chesapeake from the already depleted oyster beds in Long Island Sound and elsewhere. Transplanted to the waters of the Chesapeake the deadrise design flourished. The shallow draft made it ideal for working the shallow waters of the Chesapeake and its tributaries where crabs flourished. But at the same time the “V” shaped hull cut through choppy waters providing a stable platform for oystering or crabbing. The deadrise design was introduced to the Chesapeake around 1880 and it rapidly became the dominant design for sailing craft like the Skipjack and also the earliest engine-powered deadrises when they appeared about the turn of the century. It remained the dominant design for wooden Chesapeake workboats until wood was finally replaced by fiberglass.

Peg Wallace: The Peg Wallace was built on Hooper Island in 1925 by a boat builder who was known in official records only as “Pace” but has never been positively identified. As far as we know the boat was never named until 2002 when she became the property of the Maritime Museum and was named for the Museum’s inspiration and cofounder. The boat that would eventually become the Peg Wallace stayed close to home on the eastern shore until she was purchased from Paul Dunbar of Cambridge Maryland by Reid Bandy, a boat builder and native of Anne Arundel County in 1993. Mr. Bandy brought her to the Annapolis area where he used her as a pleasure craft and carefully restored her. He donated the boat to the Museum in 2001. At the time that she was donated to the Museum the Peg Wallace was powered by a modern MerCruiser Alpha One V-8 engine. For several years the Peg Wallace was used as a floating ambassador for the Museum, visiting events around the Bay and sometimes serving as a floating platform for musical performances. In 2007 she was taken out of the water for maintenance and when her engine was pulled the decay and damage from her years of service became painfully obvious. The Museum staff came to the conclusion that she would never be restored to seaworthy condition and she became a static exhibit in Herbie Sandler Park where she is still on display.

Past Lives: How was the Peg Wallace used? The chief advantage of the Draketails was their speed, which allowed their owners to reach distant oyster beds or crabbing grounds and get back home in the same day. In her youth, the Peg Wallace was probably used for both oystering and crabbing. But the slender profile of the boat that made higher speeds possible also had disadvantages. For one thing the narrow beam limited the amount of usable work and storage space on board. It also made for narrower washboards (the deck areas long the side of the boat) than other workboats. This was important because the washboards were used to hand-tong for oysters. Most workboats, like the Miss Lonesome or even the smaller Little HES have washboards wide enough to accommodate a large boot and “toe rails” that run along the outside of the washboard. The toe rails provided the hand-tonger with a little additional leverage and also warning that his foot was at the edge of the boat. The narrow profile also tended to make Draketails difficult to maneuver. As Jeff Holland, the director of the Museum and one of the last people to pilot the Peg Wallace explained, “On a straight line she could fly, but she turned like an aircraft carrier.”

But if she was not ideally suited for oystering or maneuvering in tight spaces, any waterman could tell you that the Draketails were perfect for crabbing with a “trot-line.” A “trot line” is a way of harvesting crabs in which a long line (sometimes longer than a half mile long) was bated at short intervals (a couple feet apart) and then strung out across the bay. Watermen simply run their boat along the line, rapidly pulling it to the surface and catching crabs gripping the bate before they can let go. Draketails are perfectly suited to such long, straight runs. In addition their streamlined form tends to keep the line from getting pulled into the propeller and entangled.

Draketails were originally designed for use with 5 to 15 horsepower engines. Once larger engines became available much higher speeds were also possible and these higher speeds led to other uses. During prohibition draketails were favored by both bootleggers and the police that chased them. Later on, both poachers and game wardens utilized the speedy craft. The Hooper Island boats equipped with modern V-8’s became favored on both sides of the law.

After they passed their usefulness as working boats, because of their elegant forms and their speed, many draketails became used as speedboats and pleasure craft. This was certainly part of the Peg Wallace’s story. One indication of this are the rather elaborate carved mahogany bump rails which she sports. These would have been an extravagance and an unacceptable maintenance problem for a working waterman, but an attractive and welcome addition to a pleasure boat.

What happened to the Draketails? The Draketails had their heyday in the 20’s and 30’s and the last draketails intended for use as actual workboats were built in the 1940’s. What happened is simply that the design of deadrise workboats continued to evolve both in response to new boat-building technologies and also new fishing techniques. The same features that make the draketails so distinctive also create inherent disadvantages. The narrow beam of the original Hooper Island Draketails limited working space and also made them harder to maneuver. The distinctive inverted stern also made the stern deck more or less useless as a working space. In addition, the draketail sterns were expensive to build, prone to rot and leaking and difficult and expensive to maintain. The big change was the availability of modern high horsepower engines. This made it possible to get the performance that the Draketails offered and still have a wider, more useful boat. One result was that Draketails started getting longer and wider; new 50’ or even 60’ versions began to appear. But these boats were typically used as “buyboats” to purchase the catches from other watermen and take it to market. At the same time harvesting techniques also changed. In the 1940’s crab potting was made legal and soon became the preferred method for harvesting crabs. But the crab pots were bulky and required more storage and working space and crab potting was usually done in relatively deeper waters where the draketails were less stable. It’s probably no coincidence that the Draketails disappeared soon after crab potting became the dominant way to catch crabs. Newer forms of the deadrise workboats turned to simpler rounded sterns and then to the box-stern design that is now most common. Both the Miss Lonesome and the Little HES are the more common box-stern design.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: