Cheap River Boat

by David Wilson

This story was first published in an issue of Messing about in Boats magazine.

It was the summer of '55 and we were bored. Tommy, Junior, and I needed something meaningful to do. In the Nasville suburb of Inglewood there were the typical boyhood jobs for 11 to 14 year olds, paper routes and popsicle wagons. Scout camps were great, but over in a week. Girls were interesting of course but infatuation with them hadn't set in yet.

Juniors's dad, who did shift work for the railroad, was home enough in daytime to see our dilemma. Harking back to his own boyhood he came up with a plan guaranteed to pull us out of our doldrums. "Do you think you could swim across the Cumberland River?" he asked us one day.

"Yes," we all answered, not having done it but absolutely sure we could. After all, the YMCA had taught us well. He then revealed to us his plan. If we could get our parents' permission and if we could prove to him that we could indeed swim the Cumberland, he would help us build a boat and dock it at his friends house on the river for us to use.

The begging and pleading with our parents commenced, and after many reassurances from Junior's dad, they gave in. Never was a boat building project started with such enthusiam.

We would need to come up with at least $6 for lumber, Junior's dad told us, and then he took us to Inglewood Hardware & Lumber to get it. The 1" x 12" #2 pine shelving boards were 11-1/2" wide, 16' long and as knot free as we could find. These would be the sides. 1" x 6" bottom boards were begged from the scrap piles down the street where a new subdivision was springing up. A 4' piece of 2" x 4" would do for the bow and stern, and some scrap 1" x 4" and 1" x 6" for braces and seats completed the lumber requirements.

The side boards were marked for sawing so that a 6' full section was left in the middle of the boat with both end sections rising up to meet the bottom of the 2" x 4" bow and stern in a straight line. After sawing them out we placed them upside down atop two leveled saw horses.

The beam of the boat was to be about 3' so a piece of 1" x 4" scrap was cut to a few inches less than that to be used as a center brace. The reserve bouyancy would be determined by the rake of the sides, which were eyeballed to be close to perfect at a ratio of about 3:1. Each end of the 1" x 4" brace was cut at this angle and then it was placed in the center between the two sides. The sides were brought towards each other at the ends, leaving space between them the width of the bow and stern, and tied together with twine.

The width of the bow was made roughly 18" and the stern about 24". I don't remember the exact measurements, we just pulled the sides together untill it looked right. The 2" x 4"s were now cut at the same angle set by the side boards and they and the center brace were then nailed into place. Two more 1" x 4" braces were cut to the shape now defined and placed to support seats to be located about 4' from each end. In all, there would be five places to sit; either end, the middle and at the quarter points. In use, the stern, center and forward quarter seats were paddled from with the sternman also steering. Most of our gear was stowed aft of the center seat.

Now Junior's dad loaned us his hand plane and we used it to make the bottoms of the side boards flat to take the 1" x 6" bottom planking. The bottom was cross planked leaving gaps of nearly 1/8" between the boards. When we laid them the wood grain curved towards the sideboards and only two nails were driven into each end. A hand saw was used to cut them off even with, and at the same angle as, the sides.

To seal the bottom, cotton strings were dipped in shellac or varnish and placed into the seams. I think we left it overnight before giving it a couple of coats of heavy white lead paint, which you could get in those days. A galvanized eye bolt was put in the bow. The boat was then pronounced, "river ready".

The next step both amazed us and taught us a lot about wood. We put the boat on top of the car and went to the ferry landing to launch it. After we put it into the water and paddled it upriver a hundred yards, Junior's dad instructed us to find a lot of big rocks. He chained the boat to a tree and proceeded to sink it with the rocks put into it to hold it on the bottom. After asking the ferryman to keep an eye on it for us, we left.

Next day we raised the boat, bailed all the water out, and checked for leaks. The bottom planks had swollen together nicely but a couple were found where the gaps between them had not been wide enough causing the boards to cup slightly. After more cotton string was hammered in with a screwdriver blade, leaking ceased and we paddled the boat about a half mile further upriver to the dock.

Little did we envision the many adventures to come and the impact this small boat would have on the rest of our lives. We used our boat for three summers before it succumbed.

On the Cumberland in those days many boats were similarly constructed. Most were wider and carried the full section all the way aft to the stern where a 25 HP outboard powered them. The longer lasting ones were built of yellow poplar instead of pine, and most had higher sides than ours.