This fine gunning skiff from the bays and coastal lagoons of southern New Jersey might have evolved from the lapstrake beach skiffs that worked the exposed Atlantic beaches of the Garden State. Similarities of line and construction between the beach skiffs and the melonseeds seem too powerful to ignore.
The melonseed’s dates are not certain, and some debate swirls around their history (WoodenBoat No. 180, page 50). Howard Chapelle (American Small Sailing Craft, W.W. Norton, 1951) mentions 1882 as the earliest written reference to the boats. They certainly coexisted for a time with the more famous Barnegat Bay sneakbox, a much easier boat to build. Most observers seem to agree that the melonseed came about in a search for a gunning skiff that could work in more open waters.
The sneakbox, which curiously does resemble a seed that we might find in a melon, works well in marshes and protected waters. In rough water, the sneakbox behaves as we might expect a seed from a melon to behave: it stuffs its low teaspoon-shaped snout into the first appropriately steep wave and submerges. If we clamp an outboard motor to a board bolted through a sneakbox’s transom, the little sliver of a boat will point its bow to the sky and pound our kidneys into submission.
The melonseed, with its sharp-yet-buoyant bow, knows enough to slice right through tiny waves and to climb over the big ones. Firm ’midship sections grant it stability and the ability to carry sail. A shapely, and relatively broad, raked transom eases our concern about waves that might come down on us from astern.
By the time I arrived at the Jersey shore in the 1940s the type almost had disappeared. I never saw an original working melonseed, but the old gunning skiff left a legacy of daysailing catboats along the shores of Barnegat Bay and other shallow estuaries. These often were longer than their forebears (they ranged from about 17′ to 21′ ), and they almost always carried the fashionable gaff-headed sail in place of the gunning skiff’s spritsail. Hunters, then and now, would view the gaff rig as too heavy, too complicated, and too expensive for their purposes.
Most of the melonseed’s descendants carry pivoting centerboards in place of the original’s daggerboard. We’ll find the pivoting board far more convenient to use when sailing across the endless flats of the Jersey bays. So why did the old fellows employ daggerboards? Because day-sailing wasn’t their occupation. They were in the business of shooting ducks—lots of ducks. The longer trunks necessary to house the pivoting centerboards would have been much in the way, and they tended to leak in those pre–plywood-and-epoxy days. They were (and are) slightly more expensive and time consuming to build than the shorter, boltless daggerboard trunks.
As a further convenience, the first builders of melonseeds located the daggerboard trunk far forward below the deck, which cleared the cockpit for the job at hand. A scimitar-shaped daggerboard moved the center of lateral resistance back to where it needed to be. And it allowed the gunner to insert, raise, and lower the board without standing up. The board could be inserted almost horizontally into the trunk.
Many of the original melonseeds appear to have gone together lapstrake fashion, as did nearly all beach skiffs that worked in the surf on the Atlantic side of Jersey’s barrier islands. Other ’seeds were planked smooth— perhaps to account for some hunters’ prejudice against lapstrake hulls, which they considered “too noisy.”
Today, the nature of a melonseed’s construction might be determined by its intended use and by the extent of its builder’s experience. Smooth, plank-on-frame hulls tend not to survive life on a trailer so well as strip-built or lapstrake hulls. Given epoxy, high-quality plywood, and detailed plans, glued-lapstrake construction can be reasonably beginner-friendly. No matter how we decide to plank our ’seed, its backbone will be a sprung plank keel that we’ll bend over molds set up on a building jig. Let’s steam-bend the frames…quicker, cleaner, less expensive, and more fun than laminating them.
As for construction plans, experienced builders might consider Howard Chapelle’s well-drawn “melonseed of 1888.” He traced the lines shown here from unpublished plans that had been found in the files of Forest & Stream magazine. Large-scale reproductions of these drawings are available from the Smithsonian Institution, Ships Plans, P.O. Box 37012, NMAH–5004/MRC628, Washington, DC 20013; order plan ASSC–78. The drawings describe a particularly handsome boat, and they often were employed by builders of melonseeds during the type’s revival in the latter half of the 20th century.
Marc Barto’s plans for 13′ 6″ and 16′ melonseeds are available from The WoodenBoat Store, P.O. Box 78, Brooklin, ME 04616; 800–273–7447.
You can build your own melonseed or commission custom construction at one of the fine small shops that prosper, to varying degrees, along our coasts. If you prefer fiberglass, Roger Crawford makes ’seeds in that material to the Chapelle lines. He does business as Crawford Boatbuilding, P.O. Box 486, Humarock, MA 02047. His boats include considerable wooden trim. A good friend of ours refers to them as “fiberglass-hulled wooden boats.”
Along time ago, I had several occasions to sail a melonseed built directly to the Chapelle drawings. The good little boat belonged to Dennis Caprio, former editor of Small Boat Journal. We sailed along the shores of western Long Island Sound. I recall one early autumn morning when (typical of that area) the breeze came on just a notch above slick calm. The melonseed ghosted well. As our weight heeled the tiny skiff, gravity seemed to fill the 51-sq-ft spritsail more easily than it would a modern jibheaded sail (particularly when the sprit rested to the weather side of the canvas).
As we tacked out from the gentrified Westport waterfront in search of a real breeze, a powerboat’s wake caught us broadside. The resulting violent rolling caused the rudder’s pintles to lift from the transom’s gudgeons. The shallow rudder now trailed uselessly astern, towed by the tiller. On its own, the melonseed immediately rounded up into the faint breeze…directly into the path of a huge express cruiser (well, it likely measured about 26′ on deck—big enough). I grabbed the free-swinging rudder blade and sculled the skiff out of harm’s way. Sometimes there’s much to be said for small, maneuverable, easily manhandled boats.
In fact, the little melonseed always seemed to do everything better than the design numbers might have predicted. Given any breeze at all, it sailed faster than the diminutive rig would have suggested. It sailed drier than a boat of such slight freeboard had any right. It sailed with an easy motion, and the small cockpit and flat deck seemed acceptably comfortable…at least for a not-yet-old crew.
Sprit rigs, when properly set up, deliver about as much drive-per-dollar as any arrangement. We’ll need to keep adequate tension in the snotter (the line that secures the heel of the sprit to the mast). In strong breezes we’ll snug up the snotter. As the wind dies, we’ll ease the snotter just slightly. If we should ever have to make a sprit for one of these boats, I’ll suggest cutting the stick slightly longer than seems necessary. A little extra length will be, at worst, an easily correctable nuisance. A too-short sprit can ruin the sail’s set and the boat’s performance.
When the time comes to purchase a new sail, let’s visit a maker who boasts more than a little experience with four-edged sails. Folks who cater solely to the racing fleets might want to cut the sail too flat. The spritsail should have considerable draft (fullness) by modern standards, and the point of maximum draft should be farther forward than in a highly strung sloop’s mainsail. Thanks to the current revival of traditional arts and design, we’ll find competent makers of four-edged sails along many waterfronts.
Yes, the melonseed’s shoal draft, likable sailing characteristics, and casual trailerability all contribute to the continued popularity of this 19th-century design. But some of us are convinced that it survives primarily because it is a beautiful boat…well worth building, even if we’re not inclined to blast unfortunate ducks out of the sky.
For a comprehensive list of available melonseed plans, see “A ’Seed Catalog,” WoodenBoat No. 180 , Page 54.
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