The Gunwales

The attachment of the gunwales is the last step before taking the hull off the strong back.  The gunwales are integral to the hull for several reasons.  First, they give added support by tying the whole hull together.  Should the bow of the boat collide with with a pier, for example, that force will be safely spread away from the bow and along the gunwales, thus avoiding serious damage.  The same will happen should a blow to the midships occur.

The second function of the gunwales is to offer a sturdy support for the oar locks. Howard Seaman’s racing guideboat, now on display in the Adirondack Museum, shows the strain that his oarlocks had to bear when he was racing.  His oarlocks were held by bolts that ran through the gunwales and hull planking where they were securely held with washers and nuts.

The gunwale are useful in another way; they help eliminate the use of thwarts.  Thwarts are cross bracing used with canoes.  Canoes use steam bent ribs which are not as strong as the sawn ribs in a guideboat.  Doing away with thwarts by using sawn ribs opens up the inside of the boat and makes it much easier to stow gear.

My gunwales are made of quarter sawn cherry.  I learned the secret of using quarter sawn stock after wrestling with flat sawn material on my first guideboat.  It is nearly impossible to get flat sawn stock to conform to the shear curve.  Sometime way back someone clued me in to using quarter sawn for the gunwales.  I have been forever grateful for that advice.

Why is quarter sawn stock preferred for making the gunwale?  Grain in wood is really a composite material.  A softer layer of the grain is laid down during the spring and summer months.  Towards the end of summer a harder, denser layer forms next to the softer band.   This forms what woodworkers call grain.

With flat sawn stock the grain runs roughly parallel to the top and bottom of a plank.  Just the opposite is the case with quarter sawn stock where the grain runs perpendicular to the top and bottom of the plank.

When you are installing the gunwale the stock must bend upwards along the shear line.  Flat sawn stock totally resists this bend.   Even with steaming the gunwale it is extremely difficult to fit the gunwale to the shear curve.  I suppose it is the hard layer of the grain that resists that bend.  It just doesn’t want to move sideways.

On the other hand quarter sawn stock is much easier to bend along the shear line.  I’m not saying it still isn’t a struggle to make it fit, because it is.  But with some patience you can work your way along the shear line  fastening the gunwale to each rib station.  I use #6 X 3/4″ long round head screws to fasten the gunwale.

The use of quarter sawn material is no panacea, it is still difficult to install the gunwales.  The gunwale stock is 9/16″ thick and 1 1/4″ thick.  To make it easier to install, I ran a rabbet down the center of the hull side of the gunwale.  It is the width of my table saw blade and 1/8″ deep.  The photo below shows the rabbet.  The rabbet has a minimal effect on the strength of the gunwale.

Rabbet cut in gunwale

Here Stew is working along patiently fastening the gunwale.


Fastening gunwale


With the gunwale installed we can begin in earnest to finish the inside of the hull.  that’s next.





The last (shear) plank

I have run out of my stash of quarter sawn white pine planking stock.  Since I can’t find any more white pine locally, I need to switch to another material for my final round of planking.  Spanish cedar is a very handsome wood that I have used to build my previous boats.  Besides being beautiful, Spanish cedar is light weight and rot resistant.   However, since only flat sawn Spanish cedar is  available locally, I will have to deal with its shortcomings.  That drawback means that it is very hard to make it conform to the hull.

In an attempt to make the Spanish cedar conform I tried my old standby flash molding.  To do so you spray water on the plank, wrap it in aluminum foil, and place a thermal blanket on top.  This sandwich is then clamped into position on the hull.  While it is clamped in place, it is heated to around 300 degrees and held there for a few minutes.  If all goes well the plank should take the shape of the hull imparted by each rib.  No matter how I tried the plank would not take the shape of the rib.

So the only option was to use the old timers method called “backing out”.  They use a plane with a convex sole to conform the plank to the curve of the rib.  I have often been awed  by those who are able to back out a plank because it takes extraordinary hand-eye coordination.  Since I have no choice, I will give it whirl.

I have a lie-Neilson convex plane and a scoop shaped chisel to use for backing out.  Here they are below.


Lie-Neilson convex plane.


Scoop chisel

I finished off the convex surface of the plank with a scraper with a rounded face.   This seems to work quite well.  It enable me to hang the last plank.

Rounded scraper

Here is the last plank.  The tan colored shear plank offers a nice contrast to the white pine planking.

Now on to the gunwales.




Planking almost complete!!

After what seems a very long time, Stew and I hung the next to last strake.  Planking is an arduous task but despite many obstacles we have almost finished it.  And we didn’t need the “crying chair”.  The crying chair comes from a conversation I had with my friend Bunny Austin.  Bunny was a remarkable Adirondacker.  He comes from a family of guideboat builders.  His lineage begins with his grandfather Billy who came from Vermont in the mid-1800’s and started building guideboats on the shores of Long Lake.  Bunny’s father, Merlie continued the craft.  Bunny had little choice but to continue the family tradition.

Well, his nephew, Kevin, also a Long Laker, felt compelled to build guideboats.  One day Bunny got a distress call from Kevin.  “Uncle Bunny I’m in a terrible mess.  Overnight my newly laid plank split right down the middle.”  ‘Well, Son, pull up your crying chair and try to think of other things”   Bunny replied.

Here I am in my crying chair.  So far, during this build I haven’t needed it.  I hope my luck continues.

                                                 The crying chair

This time around I’m using quarter sawn white pine for the planking.  Since the grain runs perpendicular to the surface of the plank, it will bend more easily around the curves in the ribs compared to flat sawn stock.  I found quarter sawn stock much easier to work with compared to flat sawn stock.

While struggling to lay out a new plank, I discovered that there was an easier way to lay them out compared to spiling.  To do so, lay the new stock over the previously laid plank.  Overlap it by at least 5/8″.  Reach under the overlapped stock and, with a  pencil, trace the forward edge of the previous plank onto the new stock.  With a batten connect the traced lines to obtain a smooth curve.  Cut along the line and trim it with your block plane.  We will now call this the nascent plank.

Lay the nascent plank back on the hull.  Locate it  at least 4″ below the last plank and make sure it is aligned with the ribs.  Now take a compass and mark off the distance from the top of the bevel on the previous plank and the next tick mark.  Mark this distance on the nascent plank.  Do this for each rib station.  Connect the “dots” with a batten and cut away the waste.  The photo below shows the procedure.

                                                 Marking off a new plank using a compass.


I have run out of quarter sawn white pine planking stock.  I decided to go to Spanish cedar for the last plank.  It is a beautiful wood with grain much like mahogany (it is a relative of mahogany but much lighter).  The problem I will have to overcome is that it is flat sawn.  That means it will resist bending around the curve of the hull.  My next post will be devoted to solving how to fit a flat sawn plank on a curved hull.

Planking begins

Before planking can begin there are many small tasks to complete..  These will ensure that, at this early stage, there will be no unpleasant surprises down the road.

We ended the last post with the nascent hull upside down on the strongback. Before going further, the ribs must be stabilized, or tied down.  This is done using what the old timers called a spline.  I use a spline made of a quarter inch square batten long enough to run the length of the hull.  Since it will run along the shear line I mark that off first.  I attach the spline to a stem and  proceed down the line attaching each rib to it.  Except for the ribs nearest the stems the ribs should be separated by the same distance as they are at the bottom board.  Use a level to make the ribs nearest the stems plumb.  The photo below shows the spline in place.

The photo also shows some of the cross-bracing that makes a rigid, secure hull. Below is another view of the bracing.

In this rendition of a guideboat there are eight rounds of planking, a garboard plank, six others and a shear plank.  It really helps laying out the planks if you mark off where the lower edge of each plank falls at each rib station.  This is done using a series of “tick tapes”.  There is a tape for each rib station.  The photo below shows a group of them.

Tick Tapes

The garboard plank is the easiest to install.  That is because you only have to worry about lining up the forward edge of the plank.  To do the lining off, clamp edge of the plank stock an inch or so above  the first set of tick marks.   Make sure the planking stock is wide enough to extend at least 2″ above the bottom board.  Now take a compass and, for each rib station, transfer the first tick mark at each rib station to a point on the planking stock.  This will give you a series tiny arcs, that when connected,  provide the shape of the leading edge  of the garboard plank.  Use a batten to connect the arcs with a pencil line.  Cut along the line and clamp the new plank onto the hull.  If necessary, use a block plane to trim the edge to its proper shape.

You will have an excess of plank above the bottom board.  This excess has to be removed. The fastest way is to use a chisel.  Be careful to go with the grain or you will have split running into the new plank.  If you are reluctant to use a chisel use a block plane.  This operation is best done after the plank has been installed.

You will need to use two separate lengths of plank stock to span the length of the hull.  These are joined together using a joint called a scarf.  It is made by overlapping the two planks.  Before we get to the scarf we need to apply a feather edge to the leading edge of each raw plank.  If you are using 1/4″ thick planking the bevel will be 5/8″wide.   I use a simple marking gage  with a 5/8″ wide offset in it.  I slide this along the plank while holding a pencil  tight to the edge as shown below.

Lining off the bevel

Now using a low angle block plane, I cut the lap.  I use a Lie-Neilson low angle block plane.  It is a pleasure to use.  It is very simple to adjust the blade depth and it stays sharp seemingly forever.  Here it is.

Lie-Neilson low angle block plane

Cutting the lap is not easy and takes some practice.  You will get plenty of practice while building this boat since there are over 200 yards of lap to be cut.  The main difficulty in applying the lap is to keep it from becoming rounded.  I hold the plane with my arm straight out in front of me.  I “stiff arm” it.  That seems to help prevent the plane from “rocking” sideways and causing it to round the bevel.

Planing a lap.

Then I finish the lap using a cabinet scraper.  This simple tool is a godsend.  It is simply a thin piece of carbon steel about the size of an index card.  You apply a burr to the edges using a special sharpening tool.  I use one made of tungsten carbide.  It is shown below.

Tungsten carbide scraper sharpener


To sharpen the scraper, first grind or sand off the edges to be sharpened.  Then clamp the scraper down flat on a stable surface.  You can apply some bees wax or motor oil to it to help sharpen it.  Now take the sharpening tool and run it several times across the flat surface.

First step in sharpening a cabinet scraper.


This will produce a burr” along the edge of the scraper.  Now you want to turn the burr 90 degrees so that it will act like a tiny plane.

Turning the “burr” 90 degrees to produce a cutting surface.

It is not possible to use one plank to span the entire hull.  You will need to connect two planks together using an overlap, or scarf joint.  Before you can do the scarp joint you need to fit the “hood ends” of  each of the two planks into the rabbets cut into the stems.  The photo below shows a plank hood end fastened to the stems.

Hood end of the garboard plank fastened to the stem.

Applying the scarf is done once the lap is cut into the new planking and the hood end is fitted.  For planking that is 1/4″ thick, I use  a scarf that is one and quarter inch wide.   Here it is lined off with the block plane ready to go.

Lining off the scarf.


The rules of a scarf is that it should fall on a rib.  That means one of the scarfs on a plank should end in the middle of a rib.  So the feather edge of one of the scarf joints should fall right on the center of a rib.  The scarf on the mating plank must begin at the center of the rib and extend beyond it by one and a quarter inches.  If you are not careful and don’t allow for this additional one and a quarter inches in laying out the plank you will have a plank hanging in free space.

To cut the scarf use a plane or chisel to remove most of the waste.  Follow up with the long board sander.

So now the garboard plank is ready for  installation.  Before attaching the plank, lay a bead of Sikaflex 291 Lot bedding compound on all surfaces that will be covered by the new planking.  Now attach the planking using #4 X 5/8 brass screws located on each rib 7/8″ down from the edge of the bottom board.  Apply additional screws every 1 1/2″ just 3/16″below the  bottom board.  See the photo below.

Location of fasteners for attaching the garboard plank.

Installation of the garboard plank is a warm up for the work ahead.  The garboard has only one edge to be concerned about. From now on fitting a new plank to the previous one will cause much head scratching.










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An eager apprentis joins me

In an earlier blog I told how I found my way back to building yet another guideboat.  This time around I would use the same materials that the old master builders used.  There was one exception.  I would use hackmatack roots for the ribs and stems.  The old timers would have used red spruce which is no longer available.  But this substitution should make no difference.

Much to my surprise and delight I found someone who was eager to join the enterprise of building a guideboat.  He is my brother -in-law Stew.  Stew is an extremely creative soul.  He has great nostalgia  for things of the past.  He loves old cars and has restored several.  He collects things from past years that seem, to others, as outlandish.  They include a wooden telephone booth, juke boxes(3), and an Atlantic City wheeled boardwalk stroller.

As I have gone along with this build I have learned new things about building this beautiful boat.  They have come to me quite unexpectedly,

So let’s get started.  We’ll need to start assembling the various critical parts of a guideboat.  We  will start with the bottom board.  I was fortunate to get enough grade A eastern white pine stock wide enough for making the bottom board.  Since it was too short to make the whole board, I would have to scarf it.  I’ve done that before so it’s not a problem.  Using a template I laid out the board on my new stock. Then off to the bandsaw with my able assistant, my wife Fran.  Here we are at the bandsaw.

Fran and cut one end of the bottom board.

Next the midship ends of the board are beveled to make the scarf.

Setting up the prepared stock for making the scarf.

I have put the two previously sawn planks on top of one another and offset them by the width of the scarf (a rule of thumb for making a scarf is to make its width six times the thickness of the stock).  By setting it up this way I can plane the two planks at once.  If I do it right the two sections should fit nicely together. (PS Be sure to allow the thickness of the scarf in laying out the length of the  bottom board.  If you don’t you will come up short)

I used recorcinal glue to bond the two sections.  In order for the planking to have a smooth transition from the bottom board to the ribs the bottom board must have a “rolling ” bevel.  I use a template  to trace the upper edge of the bottom board.

You can do the same thing by clamping a small, straight piece of wood to the foot end of a rib.  Extend it a few inches from the foot end.  Now place the rib with the clamped jig up against the bottom board at a rib station.  It should be snug against the underside  of the board.  There will be a gap where the rib extension does not meet the bottom board.  Measure that gap and mark it on the upside of the board.  Do that for each rib station.  Connect these “dots” with a batten.  This line delineates the waste that must be removed to produce a smooth transition between the bottom board and the rib.

Template to layout the upper edge of the bottom board.

Now we can star putting the pieces together.  The bottom board is slung on a hanger on each end of the strong back.  To have the bottom board hung vertically makes it easy to attach the ribs.

Bottom board ready to accept ribs.

Now the ribs are attached.  Here they are on a rack ready  to hang.  The rib patterns are in the lead on the rack.  I find that storing the ribs on a rack like this makes the whole assembly process easier.

Ribs on rack ready to be attached to the bottom board.

Here, the ribs have been attached to the bottom board.

Ribs attached to the bottom board.

Now the assembly is turned upside down and mounted on the strong back.

Rib/bottom board assembly attached to strong back,

As you can see from the photos above the strong back is fitted with a special beam.  It has slots to give clearance for the ribs.  It is also bent down slightly at each end to apply “rocker” to the hull.  This slight curve at each end of the hull makes the boat more maneuverable.

Next comes the stems,  Before they are installed a rabbet must be hewn to enable the plank (hood) ends to fit flush into the the stem.  For the most part it meets the stem at a low angle and must be as deep as the  plank thickness.

Here is Stew creating the rabbet on one of the the stems.  He uses a chisel to do the rough cutting and cabinet scraper to finish up.  A notch is cut in the aft end of the stem to receive the bottom board.

Stew cutting the rabbet on the stem.

The stems are now ready to be attached to the bottom board.

Stew attaches a stem to the bottom board.

The next steps are important to a proper build.  The bottom board must be level and the stems perpendicular to it.  Place a carpenter’s level crosswise on the bottom board at the midships.  If it is necessary to level the bottom board put shims under the strong back legs.  Now put the level up against each of the stems.  You may have to use shims to make the stems perpendicular to the bottom board.  As the old timers put it we are now level and plumb.

In the next post we will prepare the nascent hull for planking.



Ode to Bunny

                                           Bunny Austin

I learned the other day that a true Adirondack mountain man, Bunny Austin,  had passed on.  I treasured my relationship with Bunny although I hadn’t seen him for awhile.  He was a gentle, humble, and compassionate man.  He always made you feel welcome.  He freely shared his knowledge of boat building and Long Lake Town history.

I would often visit him during the summer.  We would sit on his porch and chat.  His house was high above the lake and  had a wonderful view of Mt. Sabattis, East Inlet Mountain and, of course, Long Lake.  Bunny told me that when he grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s there were hay fields everywhere.  Now, instead of seeing fields from his porch, the forest has taken over.  The only field I know of in Long Lake is owned by Tom Bissell.  Tom graciously allows the 90 miler canoe race to start from that field on the second day of the race.

Bunny was born into a guideboat building family.  His father. Merlie, built them to help support his family.  Bunny said that Merlie spent many hours building and could build a guideboat in about 300 hours. Then there was his grandfather Billy who built rowboats around 1870 or so.  He dwelled at the north end of Long Lake.  I was curious about where Billy came from.  I suspected that at least some of the early migrants to the Adirondacks were shipwrights.  Bunny said that his grandfather moved from Ferrisburg, Vermont to Long Lake.  Hmm, I thought, Vermont is known for dairy cows, the Green Mountains, and maple syrup, not boat building.  How wrong I was!  I forgot about Lake Champlain.  It was the hub of naval activity during the Revolutionary war and the War of 1812.  Doubtless, many Vermonters left their homes for the Adirondacks bringing their ship building skills with them.

Bunny’s grandfather must have been one of them.  Ferrisburg is located very near the shore of Lake Champlain.  This large lake was the site of intense naval activity during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.   The tall ships engaged in these battles needed the skills of shipwrights of many abilities.

Bunny had a nephew, Keith, who also built guideboats.  I knew Keith and had talked with him of our mutual interest in building guideboats.  He related an amusing story about an exchange he had with his Uncle Bunny.  Keith had run into a real jam while building a boat.  He was totally exasperated and called his Uncle Bunny for advice.  Bunny told him to pull up his “crying chair” and think about it.  How I can relate to the crying chair!

As a young man Bunny enlisted in the Marine Corps and excelled in marksmanship during boot training.  In fact he was so proficient at marksmanship that he became an instructor.  Later he was only one of two enlisted men in his platoon to be offered pilot training.  Bunny told me that he played a crucial role as a pilot during the Cuban missile crisis.  He flew photo reconnaissance missions over Cuba to gain invaluable intelligence about the Russia’s intentions.  This required him to fly very low over sensitive military installations, a very dangerous mission.  His commanding officer was well aware that Bunny might not return from every mission.

Bunny would often take me back into his shop.  It was like going back in time to the early 1900’s.  It was sort of an old barn filled with  impressive power tools.  There were always one or two guideboats under construction or being refurbished.  I have a vivid memory of rib patterns hanging on the wall.  Each set had the name of the builder who used them.  It reinforced the idea that guideboat builders would freely share their expertise with other builders.  Perhaps that is why guideboats are remarkably similar regardless of who built them.  It also reinforced my sense that Adirondackers freely share their knowledge and possessions.

Bunny felt the call to serve as a Pastor and was trained at the United Wesleyan College in Allentown, PA.  He then became a Pastor at a Brant Lake Church in the Adirondacks and also in Germany as a Pastor for three years.

“Well done good and faithful servant.”




My Fifth Guideboat

Some primal urge took over and I start building yet another guideboat.  I fear building boats is in my family tree.  With the last name Fisher it is likely that there is a strong family connection with boats and boat building.  Then too, my father built a small sailboat that he and my mother raced on the Chesapeake Bay.  You have read about my Uncle Don and the Whitehall he built.

This time around I will build a guideboat as closely as I can to how the old master builders did in the late 1800’s.  I will use hackmatack roots for the stems and ribs and quarter sawn Eastern white pine for the planking.

How do I source these rather exotic materials? Fortunately I have a friend who can help.  Josh and I became close friends in the year 2000.  This was the year my wife Fran and I spent in the Adirondacks.  I volunteered at the Adirondack Museum in several different capacities.  Halley Bond, then the Museum’s curator of the Museum’s small boat collection, decided to initiate a guideboat building living exhibit.  A boat builder would construct a guideboat on site before the Museum visitor’s very eyes.  Josh had been hired as an intern, having just graduated from the Newport Rhode Island boat building school.  So he assumed the role of builder.  Since I had built a guideboat, I became a docent.  I would answer the visitor’s questions so that Josh could devote his full attention to boat building.

Josh left the Adirondacks after his internship was over and set up shop in northern Wisconsin right near Lake Superior.  He knew that there was a need for hackmatack knees for boat building and other uses.  There had been a fellow who had a corner on the knee market; Newman, who called his business Newman’s Knees.  Tragically he was killed in a logging accident.

Josh found that hackmatack tress were numerous in his area.  They thrived in the boggy conditions found there.  He met a logger who was harvesting the hackmatack trees but had no interest in the knees.  The logger agreed to cut the trees chest high so that the roots were preserved.

Having learned from Newman’s demise, Josh uses a remote controlled power takeoff on his pick-up truck to pull the roots out of the ground.  Here is the flyer for his root business.

Flyer for Josh’s Knee Offerings

The flyer says “Custom cut crooks from trees in Northern Wisconsin.  Tell us your dimensions or send us your patterns,  We’ll ship directly to you.  Visit our website or call (715) 373-0126 for pricing.


I took Josh up on his offer.  It turns out that he already had a set of my plans.  The hull facing surface of the ribs he sent me fit perfectly to my rib patterns.  All I had to do was trim the interior facing part of the rib and round it.  I used spoke shaves, large and small, and a scraper, to do that.

Shaping inner rib surface

He also sent stems, fore and aft.  These needed a little trimming and the rabbet cut in them.

Josh said he could supply me quarter sawn clear eastern white pine 3/8″ thick.  It turns out that he knew some very old white pine trees that had their tops blown out in winter storms.  They were nearby and were scheduled to be harvested.

The stock he sent were 1/4″ thick by at least 4″ wide and up to 12 feet long.  Since Josh had been involved in building guideboats he knew how much stock to send.

Here is an edge view of the quarter sawn stock.

Quarter sawn edge view

Note that the grain is not perpendicular to the top and bottom surfaces.  This would be the case with truly quarter sawn stock.  The grain in this stock lies at an angle to the surfaces.  This is called riff cut and was preferred by the old timer boat builders.

Next time I will introduce someone who will help me build this boat.  We will start to assemble the boat piece by piece.




Search for Elysea

Many years ago my Uncle Don called me.  He asked if we could put him up overnight on his way to Mystic Seaport Museum.  We were living in Mahwah, NJ. about half way between where he was living in St. Michaels, MD and Mystic, CN.  It seems he was bringing a boat he and his boat building friends were donating to the Seaport Museum.

While he was with us I learned little about the boat he was donating; only that it was called a Whitehall and that it had  a history that went back to the early days of our country.

Here is Uncle Don in the Whitehall.

Uncle Don in his Whitehall destined for Mystic Seaport Museum.

The White hall has stunning lines.  Its planking is lapstrake and it sports a wineglass transom.  Uncle Don is sailing it but it is more commonly rowed.

There is some uncertainty regarding the name “Whitehall”.  Wikipedia claims it came from Whitehall street in Lower Manhattan.  Lower Manhattan was long a hub for shipping, dating back to pre-revolutionary days.  A small craft like the Whitehall would be indispensable for ferrying personnel and supplies between tall ships and the shore.

Somehow this origin story for the Whitehall did not ring true for me.  Whitehall street was a hub of commerce but not a hub for building ships.  I asked my son Stew where he thought the name Whitehall originated.   Stew had built a Whitehall (more about that below} so I thought he might know.  He said “Dad, I think the name came from a town called Whitehall near Lake Champaign in Vermont.”  So I googled Whitehall, NY and hit pay dirt.  Under what is Whitehall Famous for it ? says “Because of Revolutionary War actions the New York Legislature in 1960 declared the legacy that names Whitehall, N.Y. the Birthplace of the United States Navy.  So a navy needs lots of support including ship wrights and carpenters as well as materials such as tall pine and spruce trees.  This source of timber was readily available from the nearby Adirondack Mountains of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

A small boat to move people and ship’s stores about would be essential to a shipping hub.   So a small row boat 16 to 20 feet long evolved to fill the need.   But why a sail?  Well it seems the now famous Whitehall became a requirement of other large ports in the northeast U.S.  Ship chandlers, who serviced the tall ships coming into Boston used them to intercept a Clipper to secure their business.  As soon as a tall ship’s sails appeared on the horizon a Whitehall would hoist its sail and head for it.  Most would leave Boston Harbor but some were stationed in Provincetown to ensure that they got to their potential customer first.  I’ll bet they brought along some enticement to make a deal, like Mum’s pies, not seen for many months at sea by the ship’s crew.  The Whitehall is a rugged craft that could take on rough seas often encountered off Cape Cod.

But the story doesn’t end here.  My son Stew decided to build a Whitehall many years after Uncle Don donated his Whitehall.  Here is Stew’s Whitehall.

Son Stew’s Whitehall

Some time afterwards, Stew, his wife and two small kids visited Mystic Seaport Museum.  After spending most of the day touring the large campus the kids were tired and nagging to go home.  But Stew had been urged to go to the boat livery and take out a small boat.  So on a whim he went to the livery.  A very lively woman asked what sort of boat he would like to take out for a row.  Stew said “By the way, My Uncle donated a boat to the Museum some years ago.  Would know anything about it?  ” What was his name” the woman replied.  “Dr. Donald Fisher” said Stew.  “Oh, the Elysea.  It is right here.  It is one of our favorites.  It goes out almost everyday.  It never gives us a problem.” she replied.

So fast forward to now.  Last fall my wife Fran and I visited Mystic Seaport Museum.  I was intent on finding Elysea.  Was she still around?  After all she had been a part of the Museum for over 40 years.

The guides at Mystic are most friendly and helpful.  I corralled one of then, a woman named Margaret, and told her of my search for Elysea. She said we should go and search around the livery and the pier.  So off we went but no luck.  No Elysea.  My heart sank!  What could have happened to Elysea?

Then Margaret said we should check with Trevor.  Trevor is a shipwright at Mystic and does restorations of their small craft.  We found Trevor in the livery barn at work on a restoration.


We asked Trevor if he knew the where abouts of Elysea.  “Oh, sure” he said, “She’s right outside on a trailer.  She’s due for a thorough refurbishing after I finish this boat.”

Sure enough, there she was.

                                            Elysea on her trailer.

Here are other views of her.



Stern view of Elysea.
                                                       Elysea-side view.


Bow view of Elysea.


                                                        Elysea-stern view.
Seat back.

We left Mystic feeling happy and satisfied that a Fisher family legacy was intact and will provide many happy times for Museum visitors in the years to come.  We were invited back for the relaunch of  Elysea next spring.  We’ll be there!

An afterword:  According to the internet the name Elysea is of Greek origin and means “blissful, noble, and honorable.”


The 2021 Adirondack 90 Miler-Some Thoughts after the Race

Well, Jon and Kevin did a fantastic job of winning the 2021 90 Miler under very harsh conditions.  They came in well ahead of the pack, in fact almost 60 minutes ahead of the other 2-man guideboat contestants.

Some time after the race I received a package from Jon.  I had no inkling of what it might be so I eagerly opened it.  Here is what I found.


Plaque commemorating the 2021 90 Miler

Jon took great care in acknowledging all who contributed to the great success that he and Kevin achieved.  We know of the long hours he and Kevin spent practicing during the summer.  They were meticulous in their preparation making sure that no detail was ignored.  For example, you will remember that they had an extra set of oars ready if needed.

Jon and Kevin realized that their boat was integral to winning.  They had great praise for Thankful during the race.  But they took time to recall the origins of their winning craft; Caleb Chase, the designer of Thankful and me, her builder.

Let’s take time to recall the life of guideboat builder Caleb Chase.  I chronicled his life in my book “Tale of an Historical Adirondack Guideboat and How to Build One“.  Here is how the chapter on Caleb begins:

” Speaking of old times reminds me of old Caleb Chase of Newcomb, with whom I had a most interesting talk not long ago when I happened to be passing by his way.  No Adirondacker of the old school but knows of the old boat builder of Newcomb, at least by reputation, for the famous “Chase boat ” has for over fifty years been regarded as the most perfect type of woodsman’s craft built or used in the North Woods.  The staunch little products of the old man’s skill are found in every corner of the Adirondacks.”  from Field and Stream, September, 1901. page 108.

So?  Well, it was Mr. Chase who built the Queen Anne guidedboat.   The Queen Anne was the guideboat whose lines I took to build Thankful.  (The name given my third guideboat was taken from Caleb Chase’s wife, Thankful.)  Caleb and Thankful settled in Rich Lake not far from Newcomb, NY.  They had seven children and Caleb, through various endeavors such as boat building, gunsmithing and farming was able to provide his family with a comfortable life.  The family compound grew to include an attractive home, a workshop, paint shop, black smith shop, a barn and an ice house.

At one time there were 70 guideboat builders in the Adirondacks.  So what makes a boat built by Chase distinctive?  First, Caleb was not hemmed in by traditional thinking.  His name is associated with the then radical change in design of a guideboat’s stern.  He realized that there were advantages to eliminating its traditional square-ended transom to make the boat double-ended.  It made the boat lighter and easier to carry.

Caleb was quick to capitalize on the shift in guideboat requirements that occurred during the 1880’s and beyond.  During that time guideboat design shifted from being primarily a workboat to a pleasure craft for use mainly by the well-to-do.   These were either  owners of or guests at the Great Camps or guests at the many hotels that sprung up in the region.  Either venue, Great Camp or hotel, had guides who would take a gentleman as well as his lady friend out on a lake for a day of fishing, exploring or picnicking.  Since the days of extended hunting and fishing trips were mostly gone, guideboats morphed into a “pleasure” vessel.  Caleb identified several characteristics that would make the craft more appealing to this wealthier class of users.  They were stability, durability, and beauty.

Guides would rate a boat as to whether it was “steady” (stable) or “cranky” (tippy).  Cranky boats were judged to be poorly built.  A joke went around that if you were rowing a cranky boat you should keep your hair parted in the middle.  Otherwise, the boat would be more likely to capsize.

Chase made his boats more stable by making the beam wider and keeping the hull less inclined below the waterline.

Chase certainly knew that guideboat ribs were something of an Achilles heel.  It is difficult to find root stock where the grain follows the shape of the rib over its entirety.   At some point, particularly with ribs near the bow and stern, some ribs will exhibit cross grain.  Cross grain is where the grain runs cross-wise rather than downward along the hull contour.  This “cross grain” is where the rib is very weak.  A sideways jolt, for example, from  a careless boot could cause the rib to snap.

Chase realized that his customers would not be happy if their boats were plagued with an annoying number of cracked ribs.  To counter this tendency, he made his ribs an 1/8″ thicker.  The extra weight this incurred was no longer a consequence.  By now guideboats had become a pleasure craft rather than a work boat used for week long trips for hunting and fishing.

As far as beauty, Chase made some subtle changes to enhance the appearance of his boats.  The decks of his boats are curved, rather than flat.  There is a deck cap at the fore and aft ends that along with the upward sweep of the deck, brings a sense of motion to the vessel.  The deck caps sport a brass feed-through used to hold a pennant or a jack light for hunting deer at night.  His stems have a sense of boldness and confidence since they are quite larger than those of his competitors’ boats.

Finished deck showing deck cap and brass feedthrough

Bold bow stem of a Chase boat.

So how did I get involved in building Thankful.  Have you ever undertaken  something that, looking back, seems truly absurd?  Well building a guideboat  and writing a book about it seems that way to me now.  But, in life, sometimes compulsions take over.  Here I am finishing up my fourth guideboat.


For my part the beauty of a guideboat became an obsession.  I really wanted to have a guideboat of my own.  I don’t know where this urge to have a guideboat came from.  I had never rowed one or even been a passenger in a guideboat.  But I just had to have one.  With four kids to raise I certainly couldn’t afford to purchase a guideboat.

So the only way to possess such a treasure was to build my own.  Fortunately I had some experience building small boats.  My Uncle Donald started to build the Sairy Gamp, a very small canoe that has become a legend in the Adirondacks.  When he lost interest in the project, I inherited the plans, materials and strongback necessary to build it.   My son Stew and I built the Sairy Gamp, shown below.

Sairy Gamp

I learned a lot building the Sairy Gamp.  It would serve me well as I moved on to build a guideboat.

I began the project of building my own guideboat with nothing, no plans, or instructions.  Fortunately, that would change.  As luck would have it, there was a guideboat up on saw horses down the lane from our summer place.  I asked its owner, Susan, if I could take the lines off her.   She said “Sure, its yours to work with”.   She said the boat was called Queen Anne and it was very special to her.

I later learned (and perhaps as I was working with Queen Anne) that guideboats have a rather simple DNA.  There are a few vital measurements that are needed to build any guideboat.   If you know the bottom board dimensions, and the stem and rib shapes you can  build one.  Something called the Boston Rule allows you to line off the planking. Nevertheless, I took every conceivable measurement off the Queen Anne.  Much later, when I wrote a book on how to build a guideboat I was very happy that I had been so thorough.

I had two mentors, old time guideboat builders; who were tremendous in their advice and support for my guideboat building venture.  They are Tom Bissell and Bunny Austin.

Tom Bissell holding his guideboat model.

Above, Tom holds a perfectly to scale model of a guideboat that he had built.  It is incredibly detailed, even down to tiny copper tacks along the plank seams.

Tom had taken a course in guideboat construction taught by Adirondack guideboat buiders and had built a boat using lessons learned from the course.  When he learned I was thinking of building a guideboat, he offered to share his expertise with me.  All of it was compiled in a scrap book that he shared with me one evening at his home in Endion.

Bunny Austin was another wonderful source of counsel.

The Rev. Bunny Austin.

Bunny’s family as boat builders goes way back.  His great grandfather, Billy, started building boats at the north end of Long Lake in the late 1800’s.  Bunny’s father, Merle, continued the trade as did Bunny.  One of Bunny’s boats is in the Adirondack Museum’s collection.

I began building my first guideboat in our home in Northern N. J,  a quaint older home, built in 1918.  My basement workshop was not plush, shall we say.  Things in that department went from bad to worse when my family was forced to move when I lost my job.  We ended up moving to New England and buying an old farmhouse in Sudbury, MA built in 1895.  The basement shop had a dirt floor, there was no heat to counter the cold winds filtering through the cracks in fieldstone foundation, the ceilings were low and the lighting poor.  But  I persevered and finally my first guideboat, the Frances C.,  emerged.

Gordon in the Frances C.

So there you have it.  Guideboat races are not won by only the grit and determination of the racers.  The boat and those who designed and built it count too.



The Adirondack 90 Miler Canoe Race-Day 3, 2021

Jon writes:  “Day 3 dawned with a steady, ominous wind in the trees above the hotel, a forbidding sign of things to come…We started in Square Pond at Fish Creek Ponds Campground.  From there we wound our way through a twisty channel into Upper Saranac Lake.  (The three Saranac Lakes, Upper, Middle and Lower are linked together in a  U shape).

Before reaching Upper Saranac Lake, there is a bottleneck caused by a bridge the racers must squeeze under.  To make matters worse, a group of Tourist Class boats were started just before our flight. (Tourist Class paddlers are non-competitive kayakers or canoeists just in the race to finish)  Jon says ” We ran into a jumbled mess of Tourist Class racers.  This was because the Director started our wave only moments later than theirs.  We weaved our way through the boats as best we could, announcing our approach.  It was a mass of boats to navigate through and made for a thrilling start.

Below is the convergence of guideboats, kayaks, and canoes as they all try to get under the bridge.  The “wingspan” of a guideboat, counting the 3 foot beam plus at least 6 feet of oar on each side, is around 15 feet.  This makes it harder for a guideboat to maintain forward momentum in tight situations.  With the oars tucked in, the helmsman is the only source of propulsion.

Jumbled start on Day 3.

Jon and Kevin succeeded in being the first guideboat under the bridge.  “However, there was one two-person guideboat that was committed to staying with us.  They gave us chased the entire day.

Upper Saranac (Lake) was a washing machine of white capped rollers, pushing us and pulling us and at one point nearly pitch poling us.  The big water between Dear Island and Doctors Island was the heaviest.  It caused us to surf down the biggest waves.  I recall looking down on Kevin and thinking “We might go over”.  I was so far up in the air that my paddle couldn’t dig in a brace stroke.”

Gordon here: Jon and Kevin are in real peril.  The waves have become so high that they lift Thankful’s stern out of the water.  At the same time, they threaten to drive her bow into and under the forward wave.  If her bow is driven under water, it could cause Thankful to flip over upside down (pitch pole).

Fortunately, the old school guideboat builders recognized this danger and designed the hull to avoid catastrophe.  The shear line of guideboats rises upward rather abruptly at both the bow and stern.  This adds more buoyancy where it is most needed.  Decks, fore and aft, help prevent seas from entering the boat should the bow be submerged.

Here is a photo of a reproduction of a guideboat originally built by Warren Cole.  It shows the upsweep of the shear line at the bow.

Reproduction of guideboat originally built by Warren Cole in 1905.

There is another route to disaster that could end the race for Kevin and Jon.  Their boat could slip sideways down the face of a wave and flip over, dumping Jon and Kevin into the Lake.  Race over!…..

How to keep this from happening?  Jon is hindered from using his paddle to “brace” the boat and keep it perpendicular to the waves.  As said above, much of the time the stern is so high above the waves that his paddle is useless.  That leaves it to Kevin.  He must maintain forward momentum , pulling hard on the oars as best he can in these very rough seas.  One of the main obstacles is, strangely, the oars.  They are pinned meaning he can’t feather them  With oars that can be feathered you can rotate them on the recovery stroke so the blade is parallel to the water.  With pinned oars there is a greater chance of “catching a crab” as experienced rowers put it.  By that they mean the oar strikes the crest of a wave before the recovery stroke is finished.  This can pull the boat off course, feeding directly into sliding sideways down a wave and capsizing.  So, on the return stroke, Kevin must keep the oars up high, well above the chaos of the churning lake.

Jon and Kevin finally reach safety as they round Doctors Island.  They are on the lee side of the island, blocked from the strongest gusts and horrific waves.  Next is Bartlett Carry.  Jon continues “We arrived at Bartlett Carry only moments in front of the next guideboat.  That boat was committed to keeping us at full pace despite our extensive lead time.  We ran as fast as we could down the hill of the Carry to Middle Saranac Lake.  There we got into the water quickly.

As we left the Carry behind the water was calm until we made the turn into the main lake.  Feeling like we gained a bit we relaxed and focused on efficiency.  The wind was now cross our beam and lapped at the hull.  Things became quite bouncy as we headed towards the Saranac River.  As we approached the shallow river the seas became quite confused, pushing us into the channel.  Tricky stuff! But Thankful handled it well.

Next was the carry around the Upper Lock.  (Should you choose there are hand-operated locks for power boats and such.  They get you around the rapids on the Saranac River.  Obviously, Jon and Kevin choose not to use them today as they would take too much precious time.)

Once around the lock the course proceeds into Lower Saranac Lake.  Here the boats pass Devil’s Pulpit Rock formation.  It is named from a Native American legend of a young man who jumped to his death after being spurned by a woman of his interest.

Lower Saranac Lake returns to the Saranac River again and the lower lock.  The carry around the lock is steep up and then down and is the final carry.  After the carry we jumped back into Thankful, now onto Oseetah Lake.  We had about a 5 minute lead so I confidently suggested a shortcut to pad our lead.  We had used it in the spring during the Round the Mountain Race.  This is where races are won or lost…

We ran aground in the short cut, forcing both of us to jump into the mucky water up to our knees to pull the boat through.  We lost a minute here as the other team chasing us opted to go around and avoid the quagmire we were wading through.  We jumped back into Thankful, covered in mud, and back into the channel.  The other boat was about 100 yards behind us and quickly gaining.

I quietly asked Kevin if he had anything left in the tank.  He was on oars and said he did.  We put the hammer down and he dug down and so did I.  We pushed as hard as we did at any other point during the entire three days.  It was a 40 minute sprint through Lake Oseetah and Lake Flower.

We crossed the finish line about a minute in front of the next boat. Phew!”

Crossing the finish line on Day 3.