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Deadrise Boats – Chesapeake Workhorses

Ask any waterman on the Chesapeake Bay what a deadrise boat is and he can probably give you at least an hour’s worth of history. Oddly, if you go north and ask the same question, chances are you will draw a blank. The term “deadrise” describes the fact that the hull planking rises on a straight line from the keel to the chine where the bottom connects to the sideboards. On a typical Chesapeake Bay deadrise, the side planking is longitudinal and the bottom is cross-planked perpendicular to the keel. The V shape of the bottom starts almost vertical at the bow, and then flattens out as it goes to the stern.

This unusual construction creates a boat that is extremely sturdy, able to handle the rough choppy water of the Cheaseapeake Bay. While the deadrise had its origins in the sailing skipjacks, the term deadrise generally refers to engine powered boats.

Several years ago, I asked a veteran deadrise builder and waterman Captain Edmond Harrow what it was about the deadrise that he thought was so great. Harrow told me you can use them for crabbing, cobia fishing, spot, mackerel and oystering. In addition to his waterman efforts Harrow built one and a half deadrise boats a year for nearly fifty years in his backyard sheds. Most of his tools were simple hand tools like the extension divider, adze and draw knife. His most important tool was the skill he had acquired as a young man working with a master boat builder. Deltaville Maritime Museum boat shop director and boat builder John England, who has built a variety of boats over the last 50 years, is currently building a deadrise skiff at the museum.

I asked England, why do they call it a deadrise? He explained that it is called a deadrise because you can draw a dead straight line at any point along the bottom of the hull as it rises from the keel to the chine.

I wondered why it was such an appropriate boat for the Chesapeake Bay. England said “Because in the Chesapeake Bay, which is a shallow large bay, the wave action with the high winds has a shorter duration. Duration is the distance between the peaks of the waves. This causes a chop which creates a quick up and down movement of the boat. Ideally what you want is a boat that has a sharp vertical entry at the bow to cut through the waves and then flattens out in the wider part of the boat. It cuts into those choppy waves in the bay as opposed to those in the ocean where they have a longer duration.”

England described it by bringing back the memory of the Victory at Sea TV programs that I devoured after school when I was a kid. He said “the destroyers were like a deadrise boat. They are narrow and they have that sharp entry. In the ocean they are not riding up, they are cutting right through it. Then when you get into other vessels that are fuller in the bow, you will see them riding up and down with the waves.

Interestingly deadrise boats come in many sizes. England said, “Many young watermen started out in a flat-bottom skiff, which was fine in protected waters. The flat-bottom skiff was simpler and less expensive to build, but as a waterman ventured into the open waters, the deadrise was much more seaworthy.”

What ended up to be a common size for watermen was a boat in the 32 foot to 42 foot range. That seemed to be what caught on and were used a lot. They were a nice work platform. You could stand on the wash board and tong oyster or install a dredge rig. They were good for gill net fishing and crabbing.” They were built on the shore or in sheds near the shore. There were no plans. You simply told the boat builder how long and how wide you wanterd it to be. He would then go out and choose a good piece of wood to be the keel, mark it off and begin shaping it with a variety of hand powered shaping tools. There never were no plans just what they called “Rack of Eye”. The skill was passed from one generation to another, from father to son, and grandfather to grandson.

Generally, a deadrise builders worked alone with simple hand tools. All of the construction was built from the keelson once the frames were in place. The planks were attached to the hull. However, there did come a time when the deadrise builder had to call in his friends to help turn it over. This was a tricky job and one, that if mishandled, could destroy the boat. It required the use of a block and fall mounted on a tree or in the rafters of the work shed.

Transoms of the various deadrise boats were made in different styles. The round stern was probably the prettiest and took some genuine skill to build. The box square stern provides a wonderful platform from which a waterman could work his harvest. The “V” or Poquoson diamond stern is less popular.

The deadrise was not limited to boats used for fishing. The buyboats, which were essentially the tractor trailers of the bay bringing out oyster shells, seed oysters, and carrying cargoes from watermelons to fresh oysters to market. They were much larger and ranged in size from 40 to 100 feet.

Deltaville Virginia at one time had lots of people building deadrise boats in all sorts of places. In fact, to commemorate the area’s maritime heritage, a newly rebuilt maritime museum has been created in Deltaville, Virginia. In it are the artifacts the deadrise boat builders used and some very carefully constructed displays that explain just how these boats were built. John England is the master ships carpenter who oversees the building and repairing of boats at the museum. For John England it is a labor of love and he seems emotionally attached to every board he shapes to fit the traditional deadrise design. In his years at the museum he has restored boats that seemed unrestorable. A prime example if the restoration is the miraculous resurrection of the buyboat F.W. Crockett which is now on display at the museum. His handiwork is on display at the museum. And he can be seen most days at the museum boat shop, building or teaching the skill of deadrise building.

There are a vast number of deadrise boats still in active daily use by watermen. They have been rebuilt more than once, you just can’t keep a good deadrise down. For more details on the Deltaville Maritime museum, visit their website at www.deltavillemuseum.com/

It is a fun place to learn about deadrise and other boats. It is also a great place to get together with your children, friends and family and actually build your own boat during their boat building week. It is an experience you and yours will cherish for a lifetime.


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