Fred Rea installing the first frames on the Adirondack guide boat’s bottom board last spring. He mounted it on a strongback and suspended work on the project for the summer, then began planking in December. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROSAMOND REA

Retired boat builder embraces a new challenge



ELLSWORTH — Fred Rea knows his way around a boat shop.

The longtime member of the crew at Mount Desert Yacht Yard retired a couple of years ago and moved with his wife, Rosamond, to a house on Lower Patten Pond.

After 30-some years maintaining and repairing International One Designs and all manner of other boats, Rea was ready to try something new.

“When we moved to Ellsworth, I purpose-built a shop just for this project,” he said. “That was part of the deal when we bought this place.”

The project is a traditional Adirondack guide boat, of the kind that became popular in the mid-19th century in that part of the country.

Not unlike Maine lobstermen who built boats in the winters, “the guides themselves would build a boat during the winter,” he said. “Then they would resume to guide in the summer.”

Eventually hotels began to place orders for the boats to have them available for their guests. The plans Rea used were based on lines taken from a boat built in 1905, in the shop of boatbuilder Dwight Grant.

Rea caning the custom seats for the guide boat.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROSAMOND REA

Production of these boats tapered off in the 1920s and ’30s. “There’s been a resurgence, but using more modern techniques,” he said, “but I tried to follow as close to the original as possible.”

Why this particular boat?

“I’ve only ever been out in a guide boat once,” he said.

He was in seventh grade. His family was living in Virginia, but he was going to school near Lake Placid in New York. His math teacher had a guide boat, one of the old traditional ones.

“I have this vague memory” of going out rowing in it, he said, “but I remember what a beautiful boat it was.”

In the fall of 2018, Rea made a trip to the Adirondack Experience Museum on Blue Mountain Lake. He bought the book by Kenneth and Helen Durant, “The Adirondack Guide-Boat,” which includes a table of offsets for the Grant-designed, 16-foot, double-ended boat with three seats.

“It’s just a table of offsets that you could then loft the frame molds from,” he said. “There are no patterns or anything; I had to start totally from scratch and figure the whole thing out. That was part of the fun for me.”

“The pattern I was following was for a 16-foot boat,” he continued, “but the beauty of this boat is that in the center section the frames are identical. So, I dropped off two pairs of frames and ended up with a 14-foot one.”

In his brand-new home shop, he started lofting the frame patterns and making the frames in the late fall of 2018.

Most of his experience framing and planking wooden boats came from work on the much larger Internationals. By contrast, everything in this project was fine-detailed work. The frames in this boat are three-eighths of an inch wide and three-quarters of an inch high.

Back in the day, builders made the frames for these boats out of spruce roots, he said. “They’d dig up stumps and cut sections out of the stumps and cut the frames from the natural crook of the roots.”

Rea made his frames from laminated larch, spruce and a few spare pieces of Sitka spruce. Because it’s laminated, the kind of wood is not quite as critical, as long as it’s not too heavy.

“You make one frame that’s 2 inches wide and then you slice it. There are a pair of frames at either end that are identical, on either side of the middle. So, you can make four frames from one pattern.”

By spring, he had all the frames made and suspended on the bottom board, the flat bottom like a dory’s that the boat has instead of a keel. Then he mounted it upside down on a strongback and was ready for planking.

He took last summer off from the project and returned in December to begin planking.

The planks are Sitka spruce, three-sixteenths of an inch thick. In the 19th century, it would have been white pine, but back then it was easier to get “good, clear old-growth white pine with no knots.” Today, the Sitka is a good approximation.

He hand-planed 500 lineal feet of plank edge. “I got pretty good at it by the end,” he quipped.

Traditionally, the planks are laps with copper tacks, clinched over, on the overlapped seams. But Rea wasn’t sure about the tacks. “It would be about 2,000 of them overall. And I couldn’t find enough short tacks. So, following some recommendations I got on a blog online, I glued the seams together using Sikaflex.”

That solution should also eliminate some risk of leaking.

The boat is now almost finished. The custom seats are made (he also had to learn how to do the caning for the seats), the interior is varnished and the hull was set to be painted green on the next fair weather day.

Rea is waiting for the custom oarlocks to arrive from Shaw & Tenney up in Orono. It’s a pin oar system; the oars don’t slide in the locks and the rower can’t feather (rotate) the oar in the wind.

Rea is looking forward to rowing the new boat on Patten Pond, which is about 100 feet from his shop. He’s done plenty of rowing, but most of it has been to moorings to retrieve other boats; rowing for fun will be new, too.

The final stages of the guide boat project have been the perfect way to spend these early spring weeks under the state “Stay Healthy at Home” order.

“This has been a great project for this particular season,” Rea said.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Liz is an award-winning journalist who has been with the Islander since 2013. She grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor. [email protected]