In the summer of 2017, the Maine Maritime Museum (MMM) in Bath, Maine, began a year-long restoration of the recently acquired MARY E, a 70′ two-masted schooner built in Bath in 1906 and the last surviving example of her type. As the museum began the renovation, Kurt Spiridakis, MMM’s director of boatbuilding, put a proposal to the board of trustees: the MARY E would need a tender. He suggested they build a replica of a peapod built around 1886 in Maine’s Washington County. Although the MARY E would more likely have had a dory as a tender, the Washington County peapod was representative of the era in which the schooner had been built. Furthermore, it had good load-carrying volume, could accommodate multiple passengers, and, with three rowing stations and two possible rigs, could be configured in several ways. Kurt was given the green light to build the boat in the museum’s Boatshop.
The Boatshop was initially established to restore private boats and reproduce originals in the museum’s boat collection, but over time it has expanded its mission to offer courses in boatbuilding—most particularly to middle-school students—and a range of associated traditional crafts. On occasion, the staff build or restore boats on commission.
The plans for the peapod had been redrawn for the museum in 1979 by David W. Dillion from the lines and offsets taken off an existing boat in 1937 by Howard I. Chapelle and presented in his classic book, American Small Sailing Craft. Toward the end of the summer in 2017, Kurt lofted the boat and then shifted his focus from hands-on to logistics.
“The boat,” he explains, “was built mainly by volunteers. The museum has a team of about 35 volunteers who come and go in the Boatshop. Some of them are here only for the summer. Some are never here in the summer. Some will work on one aspect of boatbuilding once a year, like spiling. A normal boatbuilding project develops a flow, a rhythm. But when your workforce is intermittent, that doesn’t happen so much. It’s definitely not the most efficient way to build a boat.” But, where the project lacked efficiency, it had dedication and heart. “They are all really devoted, interested people,” says Kurt. “So, it’s just a matter of communicating; communication is everything.”
Working in a teaching environment is not new for Kurt. After training at the Carpenter’s Boatshop in Pemaquid, Maine, in the early 2000s, he went to the Alexandria Seaport Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, to be a boatbuilding instructor, and from there traveled on to Greece to spend a year apprenticing for a traditional boatbuilder. He has been at MMM since 2008 when he returned from Europe to take up the position of the museum’s director of boatbuilding. He is familiar with making relatively complicated projects practical for teams with varied skill levels. Now, he set about breaking down the project into manageable tasks. “I instructed people on taking patterns,” Kurt says. “Then it was building molds and making the backbone. We always had a work plan, but volunteers typically came in only on specific days, so it was hard to get everyone together. I did find myself repeating things a lot.”
From start to finish, the project would take almost five years, but despite that, there was a core group of four or five volunteers who were involved throughout. One was Ken Moller, who serves on the museum’s board of trustees. He has fixed boats, built a couple of skiffs, taken some classes at WoodenBoat School, and has been volunteering in the Boatshop for the past 10 years. He comes in regularly because, he says, “I enjoy the socializing, and the coffee hours, but above all, learning from Kurt.”
The peapod was built of locally sourced Maine wood. The museum has its own sawmill, a 1994 Wood-Mizer LT-40 bandsaw. “It’s not huge,” says Kurt, “but it’s big enough to do pretty much everything we need. We generally get donated logs from within 30 miles of Bath, which we bring back to the mill, saw into lumber, and leave to dry. We use a lot of northern white cedar, white oak, and black locust. The local arborists let us know if they have something suitable for us. We’ll drive a couple of hours to pick up the right log. If we didn’t do it, the wood would be turned into firewood.”
Not only does the practice of harvesting and sawing on site keep things local and allow the museum to make the most of local resources, but also it gives those who volunteer at the Boatshop the chance to follow a “pretty complete path from tree to boat,” says Kurt. “It’s definitely a little more work but it gets people invested in the whole process.”
The peapod’s framing is white oak and black locust, the knees and breasthooks are white oak, the planking and floorboards cedar, and the thwarts pine. The keel is white oak. “We cut it out of a log and the next day we started shaping it; it was really green” says Kurt. “That’s not unheard of, but usually a build of this size doesn’t take five years. As the wood slowly dried in place, the keel changed shape, so we were repeatedly having to reshape it. We had oversized it, to allow for the changes.”
Built upside down, the hull was to be planked lapstrake with 10 planks to each side. The earliest peapods, built in the late 19th century, were planked either carvel or lapstrake, and after the turn of the century lapstrake was less common. But the original peapod had been built lapstrake, and, says Kurt, that suited his crew: “It’s a forgiving type of construction and it looks really pretty.”
The molds and backbone were set up toward the end of 2017 and construction progressed slowly through the following 12 months. “It was an interesting project,” says Kurt, “but it wasn’t a Boatshop priority. It wasn’t a commissioned build and, unlike the middle-school boats, there was no deadline for its completion. We worked on it when we could, but there was no concerted effort.”
When COVID-19 hit, the project all but ground to a halt. Most of the volunteers chose not to come into the museum at the height of the pandemic and some stayed away for two years. For a while, Kurt worked alone again, but the core group was eventually back on site and the project moved slowly on.
With planking completed, the boat was turned over and fitting out began. A fundraising campaign was initiated by the museum and, as the peapod neared completion, more and more helpers came in to lend a hand. “In the spring and early summer of 2022, all kinds of things happened,” says Kurt. “We made the spars for the sprit rig, we fashioned oars, the rudder and tiller,” and the boat was painted and varnished.
When the museum held another fundraiser, among the items up for sale to raise funds was the right to name the peapod. Ken’s wife made the winning bid. “We thought it appropriate to honor William Donnell”—the man who had rescued MARY E from certain demise in the 1960s. “After all, without him we wouldn’t have the MARY E, and with no MARY E there’d be no peapod. So, we decided on BILL D.”
The BILL D was launched into the Kennebec River on August 2, 2022. She is docked at the Maine Maritime Museum alongside the MARY E, two working boats built a century apart, both honoring a bygone era, and both crafted by locals using local materials.
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