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If You Can’t Buy a Boat, You Can Build One

I built the General Lee in less than a week — and raced it, too

I built a boat in less than a week.    
    Ten 11- to 14-year-olds at Calvert Marine Museum’s boat-building camp spent five days building, gluing, hammering and painting skiff-like canoes this past summer. On the sixth day, we raced.
    In our work we were guided by veteran boat builders. We used no power tools; we did the work with claw hammers, lots of Liquid Nails glue and real nails.
    The first job was to piece together the plywood skeleton of our boat. That’s easier said than done. The stem, which looks like a triangular stake, had to be placed just so with a helper supporting one flimsy side while the other hammered in the nails.
    To the skeleton we added walls. First, we put glue on both sides of the canoe, then clamped the plywood walls in place, then hammered, bending lots of nails in the process.
    With the walls in place, we nailed the plywood to the outline of the bottom of the canoe. This became the floor. Many more nails went into that job.
    Next, we added the beam, a long skinny piece of wood straight down the middle of the bottom of the boat. The beam makes the canoe more ­aerodynamic so it glides easily through the water. Working from the outside in, we had to nail down the exact spot of the ribs we had built inside the canoe or else you’d have a nail in your foot when you sat in the canoe. We managed on our first try.
    For finishing, we used a plane to skin down the sides, rasping away all the excess wood so they’d be a lot smoother. Finally, we each made a single wooden kayak paddle.
    Painting our canoes and paddles came next, and it was a lot of work. Since the plywood was so dry, we first had to apply three coats of white primer. We switched between paint rollers and paint brushes to cover every spot of our canoes and paddles.
    Then we customized our canoes with elaborate paint jobs. I painted my canoe as a tribute to the General Lee from the TV series The Dukes of Hazard. It wasn’t going to be an exact replica, but a close resemblance. I began by marking letters with tape. I painted almost the entire boat a bright orange that shone in the sun. Next, I painted a Confederate flag on the floor of the boat. It stood out against the orange behemoth. Once the paint dried, I removed the tape and named the boat The S.S. General Lee. I would have christened it if I’d had a bottle of champagne.
    After all the work was done came the fun, a canoe race of extraordinary proportions on a beach in Solomons. Families were invited to watch eight eager boatwrights go face-to-face to topple the competition.
    In-heat races were the most challenging. You are trying to steer your canoe around little crab buoys while three other paddlers are trying to push you aside to make sure they end up winning. Because I didn’t go around the outside of the buoys, I was demoted from second place to third.
    But I ended up winning first place in partner paddling. In that race the partner is blindfolded and I — the navigator — commanded him in what direction to paddle.
    All that in a week’s work.