How to Build a Swampscott Dory

Written By: Andrea Caswell

If you want to build a Swampscott dory, first buy a set of plans. Go to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut; in the museum there, you’ll find blueprints based on the lines of old wooden dories, the fishing and sailing boats that dotted the Atlantic for centuries. If you’ve never built a dory before, start small, perhaps with a 12-footer. For an experienced boat builder, a 15’ to 17’ Swampscott is within reach.

Next, establish the boat-building area. Under ideal conditions, set up the workshop in a spare barn or hangar, with electricity to power lighting and tools. In a pinch, a garage will suffice. I know, because we’re in a pinch. My husband is building a Swampscott dory in the garage, though we’re squeezed into a rental house. No, no there’s no barn on the property is what the listing agent said. But we manage.

If you live in a northern climate like New England, you’ll want a heated shop to allow for progress during winter months. This space will become your sanctuary. It’s where the lumber will stay dry, the metal tools rust-free. In the shop you can be yourself. This sanctuary must also protect the dory until she is built and ready to launch.

Purchase the highest quality tools available. Don’t cut corners on quality, or you may cut the corners of a finger or a hand. If my husband says The blade on the bandsaw is dull, I send him to the hardware store for a new one. I like his hands, and he likes to go to the hardware store. Besides chisels and vises, dory-builders need a drill press, a belt sander, several saws, various hand planes, dozens of long-armed clamps, hundreds of bronze screws, thousands of copper nails, a ball-peen hammer, a steam box, sawhorses, and an adjustable workbench. Buy a copy of The Dory Book by John Gardner. It’s regarded as the definitive work on dory construction, and can advise the inexperienced boat builder on necessary tools. We keep a dusty edition in the garage-workshop.

Before you select any wood, consider the uses you have in mind for the boat. Swampscott dories are swift, sturdy, easy to handle, and difficult to capsize. Will you  fly-fish on freshwater streams under the Montana sky? Will you row your dory on a great lake, or trap lobster in Kennebunkport? Perhaps you dream of sailing on the ocean, to escape the endless clutter of life on shore. That’s what we imagine: the dory as our getaway car.

If you’ve set your sights on the sea, the scourge of salt water must be taken into account. In addition to brine and rot, marine parasites such as shipworms and gribbles will try to eat the boat. Woods like mahogany, white ash, cedar and oak are recommended for durability. No matter how beautiful, discard any piece of wood containing a knot. Knots become knotholes, through which water can enter and overwhelm the boat. In a dory, as in life, the goal is not to sink.

Take into account the financial resources you’ll need. Dory dreams are as free as the wind, but to build the boat it takes actual money. How much money depends on the boat’s size, and on the materials you use. If your heart is set on mahogany from Madagascar, on its deep beauty and decay-resistance, hire an international wood broker who deals in exotic hardwoods. He’ll have a man in Manakara, who’ll watch for knot-free planks to reach noisy docks off the coast of Africa.

It may take years for this lumber to float in through the mist of the Mangaro River, so be patient. My husband Ward waited by the phone for eighteen months. Finally a ring, then the words We found it. A note of caution before purchasing exotic hardwoods: know which species are vulnerable or near extinction, such as Burmese Rosewood and West African Okoume. Avoid miscreants who will sell an endangered species of wood as easily as they’d sell a soul. Never invite bad juju onto a boat.

It seems like a short time to wait, eighteen months, compared to the decades it took Ward to find me again. We first met as teenagers in college. But after graduation, our trails followed different compass points. Nearly twenty-five years later, we saw each other again at an alumni event. The sadness of long-lost slipped away from us like water. Finally a ring, then the words Will you marry me?

As with any large undertaking, develop a plan. List the tasks to be performed in sequence to achieve the Dory Launch. On your project plan, include an estimate of the time required for each task, such as laydown the lines: ten hours or hang the planks: six weeks. These estimates in turn provide a rough sense of when the dory will be done.

Perhaps you’re only twenty-two; perhaps you feel that an ample supply of the future awaits you. That’s what I thought when I finished college. There were innumerable ways for me to spend my time, apparently none of them urgent. I drifted through entire years without setting a course for myself. A few hours of boat-work a month would have felt significant to me.

If you’re nearly fifty like my husband, who’s determined to launch this dory before he dies, devote ten or fifteen hours a week to boat-work. He bought the Swampscott plans when he was sixteen. The boat should be built by now.

Today he squeezed sanding into the space between dinner and sundown. Yesterday, he varnished a gunwale instead of eating lunch. He’s in a rush because he let his dream languish into dormancy. Instead of making a project plan early, when he had the chance, Ward got distracted inland, miles and miles from shore. He wandered through a petrified forest, and settled by a hollow tree. The sacred Swampscott dory lines slipped into darkness, exiled in an empty tube.

Rest, but do not fall asleep. To move towards the future you’ve imagined, reckon with the past. Ask, When did I veer so far off-course? Which navigational clues did I miss? Release the opportunities that you didn’t recognize, because they won’t come again. Forgive yourself for failures. A boat can’t be built on regrets.

After clearing the spiders, prepare for the first step in the build, called the Dory Laydown. You will render the boat’s lines, or blueprints, full-size onto a flat surface, usually vellum paper. On boat plans, blue lines appear as a series of points and angles. These meticulous lines are drawn to scale, and boat builders rely on them to calculate angles for the shapes of hulls.

In the laydown, the boat-to-be will unfold itself in paper pieces across the floor, revealing to you its future form. Ward used geometry to convert angles to distances, from which he cut pieces out of vellum. Since it’s easier to cut paper than wood, a laydown is the most prudent way to confirm your math thus far. Consult Part Two: How to Build a Dory in Gardner’s The Dory Book for techniques on measuring points and angles.

John Gardner learned boat-building as a boy in Calais, Maine. He later fell in love with old dories on the beaches of Massachusetts: Gloucester, Marblehead, Salem, Salisbury, Rockport. But by the 1940s, these working and pleasure boats had begun to disappear. As with thousands of hardy mules and workhorses replaced by mechanized tractors, so too did the gasoline engine accelerate the demise of the dory. Automobiles and motorboats became popular; with the advent of fiberglass in 1950, the art of building wooden boats nearly ceased, leaving faint records in its centuries-old wake.

In subsequent decades of his love-affair with the dory, John Gardner fought to record historic designs. For generations, dories were built by eye alone, as Gardner lamented: It is unfortunate that boat-builders in the past did not work from lines, for much of our rich heritage of native small craft has been irretrievably lost. The old builders died. Their boats rotted away. Their patterns disappeared. Wood is made of dirt. Dust.

Building a dory will be difficult; I can’t pretend otherwise. But don’t give up when self-doubt creeps in through the workshop door. Seal your resolve with the strongest sealing wax; redouble your determination. Don’t listen to critical voices: not your own, not other people’s. The voices harass. You’ve never built a boat before, and that may be true. The deepest voices whisper, You don’t have the time, you don’t have the money, the strength, the skill, the courage, all of your doubts filling in each blank. Fear fits snugly into gnawing seams, in the gaps where two edges meet. Don’t let dark voices derail your dory dream. Stay the course, despite setbacks.

Acquire the boat builder’s lexicon to become fluent in a dream-language. Learn that gunwale rhymes with tunnel, that a pintle goes into a gudgeon, and that you have the devil to pay. Don’t be surprised when you find land-locked words surrounding the boat. The devil is the seam most vulnerable to rot; it runs the length of the waterline. Fill this seam with pay, or pitch. Let the smooth tar seep into the recesses of the gap, just as water will try to seep into the boat.

On the project plan, note the date on which you paid the devil. Document your progress to see how far you’ve come. Compare your estimated pace for make the rudder or pound the oakum with your actual pace. Maybe you haven’t made the rudder yet, or like me, you can’t stomach oakum. Oakum is a caulking material made from tarred yarn and shredded rope fibers. It looks like ten years’ worth of tangled, tortured hair washed up on the beach. Push past the oil-slick smell when you pound the oakum, because every seam in the boat must hold.

In high school, Ward worked summers at a sailing camp on Little Pleasant Bay, near the Cape Cod National Seashore. He ran the camp’s workshop, and maintained a fleet of faithful but rotting wooden boats. When he bought the Swampscott plans in Mystic Seaport, he knew that building a boat wouldn’t be easy. He’s learned that it feels impossible at times. But he won’t accept unattainable, so he hammers into the late night. He must finish the dory.

Keep a light shining in the darkness of a tube, if the dory plans are still waiting for you there. Don’t despair if the project is going more slowly than you’d hoped. Maybe you’re struggling with a stretch of rainy days. Foul weather. There are other ways to make progress when the barometer falls. Hunker down with a maritime dictionary; look up definitions for sailing large and going free.

Nautical language is fascinating. For example, there are no ropes on a boat. All those ropes that look exactly like ropes are called cordage. Each line of cordage has a different name, depending on its purpose: a halyard (also halliard) is used to raise or lower a sail; a martingale secures the jib-boom. A fancy-line overhauls the brails, and a nettle lashes a hatch. These are play-words for me. Like carved alphabet blocks, the letters connect me to people who speak this vernacular. As a game, I sometimes give Ward a pop-quiz from a chair in the workshop.

“What’s a fo’c’s’le?” I make it rhyme with popsicle; there’s no pronunciation guide for gibberish.

“The forecastle? That’s where archers stood to shoot arrows at enemy ships.”       I secretly wish for a team of archers to repel all obstacles before us. Dories don’t have forecastles, but we’ll manage.

Pay special attention to words about the boat’s anatomy, so you can have conversations with experienced boat builders. Seek out the old-timers, as Ward did after he worked on the Cape. He looked for the salt-encrusted men who’d spent years building wooden boats along the northern Atlantic coast. It didn’t matter if they built Banks dories or Nantucket dories instead of Swampscotts.

“The old-timers know where the boat will be vulnerable,” Ward tells me, as he fills a seam with life-saving oakum. “They’ve learned the hard way what will last, and what will fail.” His fingerprints are spirals of tar.

When he was just out of college, Ward sought advice about building his dory. “Do you recommend Sitka spruce for the mast and boom?” he asked an old-timer in a bar on Buzzards Bay.

Through the dimness of the bar and his memory, the leathery man recalled how a mast had once performed in reality, on the ocean.

His barnacle-like hands could no longer steady a chisel, or plane a block of wood into a 15-foot mast. “Read ‘bout that in a book, did ya?” His face was etched into a permanent squint. He sucked his pint of Narragansett, then he squinted hard at Ward. “Fine, if ya wanna blow beer money on Sitka.” Red-and-white crow’s feet flared across his temples, striped like zebra mussels.

The old-timers are hard men. They’ve been hard-living men since they were boys. The sun has baked them to cracked dry clay; the wind has blown through their bodies. They’ve lost sons at sea. The rip-currents of time will pull these worn men under too, but until then, they know which seams may not hold.

“How ya riggin’ ’er?” There are several rigging options for dories, but the old-timer offered none.

Ward told him a Bermuda rig.

The old man squinted east, into the eye of a stormy day. “Even with a jib, she’ll twist in a following sea,” he said, mainly to a wall lined with portraits of lost fishermen. “She’ll open ’er seams, dump ’er oakum.” Then the old man turned straight on Ward. “If the seams is open, she ain’t a boat no more, boy. She’s a leaky coffin.”

Look beyond the fire-and-brimstone squint. In the old man’s deep-water eyes, fathom the depths of your own dory dream. While your project plan may change, as life circumstances do, most elements will remain stable. Wooden boats have been built much the same way for thousands of years.

Laydown the lines. Carve the stem. Bevel the bottom. Secure the transom. Clamp the garboards. Fair the laps. Spile the batten. Hang the planks. Pay the devil. Nail the overlaps. Twist the stringers. Fit the thwarts. Steam the ribs. Pivot the centerboard. Pound the oakum. Wrap the gunwales. Plane the mast. Shape the boom-jaws. Make the rudder. Secure the cleats. Buy an anchor.

Ward forgot Marry for love. He couldn’t have known it was part of the plan, but here I am. Like the dory, I must fare well in stormy weather, and not become easily overwhelmed. I once asked him, Is that plank supposed to stick out like a snaggle-tooth? He admitted no, that the boat is imperfect. Neither of us is perfect, but we manage. We make the pieces fit, the scraps and the shards, and the exquisitely smooth pieces, too.

If we’d fallen in love a thousand years ago, I wouldn’t be allowed aboard the dory. Women anger sea gods, or they used to. Boats bearing my name have suffered ill fates in local waters. The Andrea Doria sank off of Nantucket Sound; the Andrea Gail was lost out of Gloucester. As seamen go, Ward’s not overly superstitious, though he’s said that we can’t launch on a Friday. Oh, and he’ll place a silver coin under the masthead for good luck.

Be aware that a boat-building project will arouse curiosity in neighbors. They’ll become sudden experts, nautical engineers overnight. “Aren’t big gaps dangerous in small boats?” a guy named Rich once asked from the safety of his driveway.

A distracting voice.

The Stockholm tar in oakum tastes black and bitter. Its oily film turns tongues from pink to gray, and fumes may fill your thoughts. Ward’s throat tightens when he hears incorrigible questions about the dory’s seaworthiness.

Voices ask: Will it float? Can it survive a storm?  

He doesn’t know, and that’s a problem. This craft must carry us on open water; our lives depend on its soundness. Blueprints are delicate ink drawings, so they can’t predict how the dory will react to a rough swell or a violent storm. That’s up to us. We must analyze darkening clouds in the sky, and notice changes in the atmosphere. Our behavior under pressure, and the laws of physics, will determine our boat’s course.

Discipline your mind when dark voices enter. Find the moral support to plane heavy planks with splintered hands. Muster the courage to hammer copper nails, after your fingernails have blackened and begun to fall off. Above all, disappear into your sanctuary whenever you can. Time is fleeting, so work without distraction. Work without guilt. That’s what I tell Ward. It’s not selfish to build this boat, I say. It’s not selfish to be who you are.

Soon we’ll decide what to name the dory. Ancient boats were given female names, in appeals to goddesses for protection. Athena, patroness of ships, please watch over us. We promise to launch when the moon is full. Sedna, mythical Mother of the Sea, please nurture us. We are hopeful sailors.

Andrea Caswell grew up in Los Angeles, and later earned degrees from Tufts and Harvard. She’s a candidate for an MFA in Writing and Literature in the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has previously appeared in the ‘Beautiful Things’ section of River Teeth and in The Normal School Online. She lives with her husband in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @andreacaswell88 / Website:  andreacaswell.net  / Email: andrea@andreacaswell.net.