Once upon a time the boat sharps on the Delaware River were sailing 15 footers with sail areas running to 400 sq ft. No self-bailers, no buoyancy tanks, no crash boats. When they capsized they had to right the boat, swim it to the bank, and bail. Bailers had to float and not damage the lightly built hikers, tuckups, and duckers. Wood and leather did the trick.
Joe Liener, who was running the wooden boat shop at the Philadelphia Naval Yard before he retired, taught me about duckers and about their bailers. A wood-backed leather scoop bailer gets into corners, doesn’t damage light framing, and can be plucked out of the water when you lose your grip. You can bail faster than a pump and, shaped right like any fine tool, the bailer is a pleasure to use. The handle is turned so you have a nice round fat part in your palm and it is angled just right so you can hook your thumb over the wooden back.
Making it is pretty easy The back ought to be a good 1″ thick and shaped like the stern of a catboat: a bit of flat on the bottom with some tumblehome at the top to help stiffen and support the leather. Cut out the back, then position and bore the handle hole. Angle the bit about 10 degrees. Make a pattern to mark out the leather; a thin plywood template will give you a solid edge to guide your cut. To do the handle, you’ll need a lathe. Before modern glues, the handles were cut where they went into the hole and wedged like an axe head. You can use a straight-sided handle but it’s just not as nice in the hand and you’d need to cut a mortise instead of boring a hole. The leather should be the heaviest you can find. Copper tacks fasten it to the back.
Scoop bailing is easier if you don’t have floorboards or can take up a section. The Delaware builders used to make removable floorboards, called floor flats, in three sections. Two ran either side of the centerboard or daggerboard trunk and one was aft, leaving a frame bay clear side to side just aft of amidships. These were held together by cleats on the underside and had turn-buttons to keep them in place in capsize. Old drawings show a two-handed bailer with a leather scoop bigger than mine but the one hander is all you need to deal with rain and spray that gets aboard.
I’ve had my bailer as long as I’ve had my ducker, a few years short of 40. I’ve releathered it and repaired the handle after using it to bang some blocks of ice out of the winter dory. It also works well for clearing snow. When rainy days put a few inches in the bottom, using the bailer is kind of fun. A hundred scoops with the right hand, another hundred with the left, seeing if I can bail fast enough to get a second scoop in the air before the first one hits the water. It’s my warming exercise before rowing.
Ben Fuller, curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, has been messing about in small boats for a very long time. He is owned by a dozen or more boats ranging from an International Canoe to a faering.
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