Thursday, July 20, 2017  

Small Boats for Rivah Country


Anew fleet of boats came to the Rappahannock recently, brought by a come-here who settled in Weems. Dave Gentry moved to the Northern Neck from the Shenandoah Valley last summer, and quickly became a familiar sight on the creek as he rowed, paddled, and sailed an assortment of remarkable small boats that sparked the interest of waterfront neighbors.

Probably the primary attention-getter is a long, lean rowing boat that recalls the narrow-beamed racing sculls often seen near a college campus. Described as a rowing wherry, at 18 feet in length, “Ruth” is one of the largest of Gentry’s boats, but size is not what rouses the most curiosity. At times, the hull is translucent: in the low back-light of early morning and late afternoon, the boat’s wooden framework is clearly visible through the hull material. That combination of form and light gives rise to such descriptions as handsome, beautiful, elegant, sleek, and most definitely, different. What the light can’t show is that the boat is also both strong and lightweight.

Other boats in Gentry’s mini-fleet are more familiar: kayaks, canoes, rowing skiffs, sailboats, and even a stand-up paddleboard. He built them all, partly for his own pleasure but also as samples of his work. He builds these boats on a custom-order basis, and he sells plans and kits to those ambitious do-it-yourselfers who have always wanted to build a boat. It’s all part of a business venture which Gentry clearly enjoys, and it explains why he and his wife Anna chose this area of Virginia, with its easy access to so many waterways.

As good-looking as these boats are, their appearance is just the first thing that attracts potential builders or buyers. The list of reasons goes on. Dave builds these small boats using an updated version of a construction method that has existed for centuries. The method is called skin-on-frame, and the boat may be called an SOF or a skinboat. Once this meant a skeleton made of whalebone and covered with sealskin (as in the Inuit qajaq or kayak) or a frame made of wood or wicker and covered with some other hide (as in the Irish curragh or currach). Even the so-called update of this construction is about a hundred years old. Instead of ribs, the new version uses plywood frames; instead of animal skins, the update uses an industrial fabric. For clarity, the original “old” and the updated “new” methods are defined by the simple descriptions “traditional SOF” and “non-traditional SOF”.

On Gentry’s non-traditional SOF boats, a few marine-plywood frames have replaced many ribs to form the skeleton. Longitudinal stringers are added to create the final hull shape, and once the frame is complete, a heavyweight polyester or nylon fabric is used as the covering skin. The fabric is stretched over the frame and heat-shrunk for a drum-tight fit, then covered with multiple coats of clear varnish or paint to waterproof, stiffen, and strengthen the skin. (The boats are not made with the resin and cloth used in fiberglass construction.)

The end result is a tough little boat that is also very light, weighing half as much (often less than half) when compared to a similar-size boat made of wood, fiberglass, or plastic. One person can carry it easily and put it into the water anywhere there is shore access—no launch ramp required.

Home builders can put together one of the small boats in a matter of weeks, including those with no previous boat-building experience or carpentry skills. The decision to build one is often encouraged by the realization that skinboats are surprisingly affordable. “And,” says Dave, “the smaller the boat, the easier it is to use it. The Chesapeake area is ideal for these boats, with its endless tributaries and creeks.” Not to mention the bonus benefits of fresh air, exercise, and ordinary, everyday fun.

Gentry seems to be one of those people viewed as lucky to enjoy their work, but in Dave’s case, it may be simply that he was determined. He has built a career out of a lifelong love for all things boating. He built his first boat at age 21 and taught himself to sail it. Fast-forward to graduate school, where he coached the sailing team and competed in one-design small-boat regattas. After a few years of juggling the travel demands of the one-designs with forays into sea kayaking, surfing, rowing, and sailboat cruising, he settled down to set up shop in Washington state.

“At the time, most home builders were doing wooden boats, maybe a stitch-and-glue [plywood sections ‘stitched’ together with wire and fiberglassed over]. It was also possible to do a ‘stripper’ boat, where narrow strips of wood are glued together to shape the hull. But all those methods are labor-intensive and expensive.

“I always knew I wanted to be a boat-builder. At the shop, I initially built wooden kayaks to sell,” he explains. “Then I made an SOF for myself. I found I could build a boat in a few weeks instead of several months, and do it for a lot less money. I decided that was the right way to do it. I started with kayaks again, but I branched out into less common types of skinboats too, including several conversions of historic boats, adding my own modifications and refinements.”

Today, Gentry’s boat list is an eclectic mix, impossible to pigeonhole by any particular kind of design. If he has a signature, it is the construction method. He enjoys the historic boat conversions, perhaps a nod to his graduate degree in history. And it doesn’t hurt that he has an artist’s eye.

“The Shenandoah Whitehall,” a 14-foot family rowing boat, is his most popular design. It’s a copy of a boat that is part of Mystic Seaport’s museum collection, now converted to SOF construction. “I resurrected a historic design, and made it accessible to everyone. I’m proud of that boat.

“I recently finished a restoration of an antique kayak that will now be enjoyed by a new generation for years to come. I enjoyed working on that one too.

“ ‘Ruth,’ the 18-foot rowing wherry, is still my favorite,” he admits. “It’s a derivative of similar boats built in wood or fiberglass. I built the prototype in just a week and a half, but a home builder could build one in three to four weeks of part time effort (weekends and some after-work hours). ‘Ruth’ can be made with a sliding seat or a fixed seat.”

The most unusual boat in Gentry’s design portfolio is the sailing outrigger canoe, “Splinter.” Reminiscent of scenes from every movie filmed in the south Pacific islands, it can now claim a regional connection with its “crab claw” sail.

Besides working in the shop—or perhaps because of it—Dave became a regular contributor to The WoodenBoat Forum, an online discussion group hosted by the magazine about all things relating to wooden boats. These postings apparently helped build his reputation as well. He was eventually contacted by the WoodenBoat School to teach in Maine, and he now conducts courses there in sailing, seamanship, and boat-building. He has directed several Family Boatbuilding weekends at Mystic Seaport (much like similar workshops held at various Chesapeake-area museums), and will do so again this summer. For seminars and building projects, he now travels to museums, yacht clubs, boating organizations, and corporations that sponsor such a team effort for their employees. More recently, he did a four-day workshop for a group of wounded warriors through the organization Heroes on the Water.

“I donate plans to a lot of schools,” said Dave. “One unlikely place was in the middle of the Australian desert. The man in charge of shop at the school was very enthused about that!”

All of which keeps Gentry busy, often through word-of-mouth recommendations. Typical buyers of plans or kits are both boaters and wannabes, who have long had the desire to build a boat, and find they can now do so in a relatively short time. A minimum number of tools can do the job. Dave’s own workshop is proof that good things can be built in small spaces. When the move to Weems was imminent, he was fortunate to find an available house with both a creekside dock and a workable shop space.

Gentry’s boat plans are detailed, well-illustrated instruction booklets. They include full-size templates for all the frames and miscellaneous parts, plus sources for the fabric and a list of tools. Kits hurry the building process along with precut marine-plywood parts plus the necessary fabric. (Because of shipping restrictions, the longitudinal stringers must be purchased locally.) If a question should arise, a quick email will bring a response from Dave.
For more information, see www.gentrycustomboats.com