Evolution of boatbuilder came through influences

By Craig S. Milner 

W alter Baron is a self-taught boatbuilder and owner of Old Wharf Dory Company in Wellfleet, Mass. In his shop, located almost at the very end of Cape Cod, Baron builds traditional-looking — but thoroughly mod. ern — wooden boats in a variety of models suited for rowing, recreational fishing or commercial marine activities. Last month, we looked at some of his specialties, including the Old Wharf Dory, Simmons Sea Skiff, Lumber Yard Skiff, and Wide Guide Skiff. This month, we look at a boat that is the culmina. tion of Baron’s experience and knowledge.


If there’s one model that gives a real insight into the way Walter Baron’s own experience as a commercial and sportfisherman reflects in his work — and how boat de. sign evolves in the hands of a skilled builder — it’s the Billingsgate Bass Boat.

Baron designed this model as a higher and wider ver.sion of the Simmons, which “retains the seaworthiness of the original design while providing more room and com.fort.” It was an idea that came to him on the water one day in October 2000. “I was fishing off Billingsgate Shoals in my 18-foot Sim.mons Sea Skiff,” he writes on his Web site, “with a nice SW wind against the tide producing a good 2- to 3-foot chop. The skiff was doing OK, but was feeling a little small. I liked the way the Simmons handles, especially in a follow.ing sea, so I thought, ‘How can I modify this boat to create a more comfortable fishing boat for Cape Cod waters?’ “Rolling in the trough, a couple of waves came right up to the rail, so adding another strake in height was the first idea. Then some more beam came to mind. This would result in more surface area aft, which in turn would pro.vide more planing surface, and be able to handle the weight of the modern 4-stroke motors, specifically the Honda 40 or 50. The Billingsgate Bass Boat was born.” Baron has tailored the Billingsgate model for fly-fishing, casting, and trolling in New England waters. Some of its

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special features include casting platforms and storage in the stern and on each side of the motor well, a cen.ter console with a seat/casting platform, and a for.ward casting area with storage underneath. Wide side decks have built-in flotation and rod storage beneath. The standard deck configuration is self-bailing, and a built-in gas tank also saves space. The interior and exterior are all epoxy coated, for longer life of the finish and reduced maintenance. The design’s high bow and flared lapstrake sides contribute to a dry ride, and its raked (backward slanting) transom enhances its rough-water capabili.ties, as in the original Simmons boats. A shallow-V bottom cuts into a chop and helps the boat ride and handle well at all speeds, he says. Baron just finished one for an owner in Wellfleet.

“It’s not an inexpensive boat, but it’s definitely a good little boat. For an 18-foot boat, it’s very capable. It handles real well in a following sea, which is one of the things a lot of boats don’t do. A lot of boats with big, wide transoms get pushed around. This boat just rides like a duck in a following sea: real steady. “The owner wanted a little cuddy and a wind.shield, and it has a little Mackenzie Cuttyhunk bass boat look to it, which is nice. He didn’t put a self-bailing deck in it, but if you put a self-bailing deck and a center console in it, it would be an excellent all-around fishing boat for a couple of guys or for four people going to the beach. It can even be poled for fishing close to shore.” The boat’s engine is a 50-hp Evinrude E-Tec 2-stroke, a computer-controlled, oil-injected engine that runs clean enough to meet both California and European emission requirements. It’s also good on fuel, he says. When powered with the 50-hp E-Tec (www.evin rude.com), the boat can reach speeds of 30 knots or more, and the way it is installed in a well and passes through the transom almost gives it the appearance of a sterndrive setup. Because of its lighter compos.ite construction, the Billingsgate model is economi.cal to run even with conventional outboards. A 20-foot boat is a good all-around size for a lot of people, Baron says, because it’s not too big and not too small. You can put it into the garage on a trailer and still close the door. He estimates the whole boat, motor, trailer, fuel and gear will weigh in at about 1,740 pounds, “so you can tow it on the back of [al.most] anything.” Glued lapstrake construction gives the boat a nice traditional look and feel, and it features locust frames and a handsome locust dash. There’s a hand-operated windshield wiper, and a canvas top could be added. “I like locust, actually, for building boats,” Baron says. “It’s not as heavy as oak and it’s more rot-re.sistant. You can’t get any long stuff out of it [but you can get] short crooked. The old boys used to use it all the time. Bud Macintosh loved it.” At the same time there are lots of modern touches like LED running lights, a Ritchie compass, and a Garmin GPS system. The navigation panel is from Blue Sea Systems (http://bluesea.com). “The guy that turned me on to the Blue Sea stuff is the guy that I built the 20-foot Sim.mons for, and he is a nuclear physicist. He says in his research on electronics, this is the best stuff. And it’s not too badly priced, so I’ve been using that.”

 A SKIFF TO CALL HIS OWN Down at the harbor, there’s one boat that’s not re.ally featured on Baron’s Web site. It’s called a Fast Skiff 14, and it looks pretty much like any number of little boats you’d see tied up at dockside. On closer inspection, however, you begin to notice a lot of in.novations built into the details. Baron got the design from the Bateau.com Web site and — except for the hull panels — built it out of material he had in the shop. The site said it would plane with a 6-hp motor, and plane it does — even though the aged 1975 2-stroke motor is not all that efficient compared to today’s small out.boards. Baron makes the best of it by running on high-test gas and using a biodegradable soybean-based 2-stroke oil he found online. One small, but significant, change he made in con.structing the hull was to put spray rails on the chines. This is to compensate for the rounded edge you get with stitch-and-glue construction. “To really shed the water, [the chine] has to be sharp,” he explains. “What this does basically is pro.vide a sharp edge to shoot the water off to the side. I’ve been doing that on most all the boats recently. It gives the boat a real dry ride for its size. “This boat is actually pretty sophisticated struc.turally. The bottom has a layer of 17-ounce biaxi.al nonwoven cloth inside and outside, so it’s a re.ally stiff structure. Between that and all the bulk.heads and the stringers [that are built into it], I’ve never seen the bottom move around on this at all, and I’ve been out in things I really shouldn’t have been.” Under the forward seat, there’s flotation and some stowage. The middle thwart houses the fuel tank and more storage. And then the stern has flotation under it, and a pump, and a little bit more storage. “You know you’ve got to have storage for this, that, and the other thing,” he says. Putting the fuel tank in the middle helps with bal.ance, and an extension on the tiller/throttle lets Baron move his own weight forward for better trim. There’s also a socket for what he calls a “granny pole” that lets him stand up and hold onto some.thing while running. The sockets are made from cut-off lengths of car.bon spars he got from his friend Tony Lima at MAS Epoxies (www.masepoxies.com), whose products he uses for lamination and construction. The pole is re.movable and can be stowed under the middle seat. “Actually, I was working on a design for a fly rod holder,” Baron says. “I was trying to figure out how to build a socket for the granny pole. I didn’t want it permanent, but you do want to have it here. It’s very handy, as you can see. First I made the boat, and I was looking at the pieces, and I thought, ‘That fits right in there.’ So I just cut it off.” There’s also a pair of oars with counterweight blocks (in the style of Pete Culler) that improve their balance. Somehow, it’s no surprise that those are from another boat. “They’re a tiny bit short for this boat, but I had them and they work,” Baron says. “If you get stuck or you’re in real shoal water and you want to go fishing or something, which I’ve done a couple of times with it, you can row it. It’ll float in about 5 inches of water. It’s real nice for shal.low water fooling around.”

YET TO BUILD While most of the boats Walter Baron has built through the years have been skiffs, there have been a few sailboats along the way. The biggest was a 35.foot “combination dory-sharpie thing” for Mait Edey, a partner in Edey & Duff, which made the Stone Horse sloops. “That boat was cutter-rigged with a large mainsail and two headsails. Phil Bolger designed it for him and I built that. I had also built him a Swampscott sailing dory.” And there is one particular sailboat design Baron still hopes to build for himself if he gets the chance; it’s a St. Pierre motorsailing dory he could take to Portland, Maine, by water to visit his son, who lives there. “You could make it in an 18-footer, but it would be kind of a dodgy trip, so I was thinking maybe 23 to 26 feet and something very seaworthy. “I was originally thinking about [one of] Phil Bol.ger’s schooners, a 23-foot light schooner. But that’s just a big skiff, and that wouldn’t be the kind of boat you’d want to go to Maine in. It would be fun, but not an open-water boat, which is why I started look.ing at the dories. And the other thing is, this is Old Wharf Dory, so I was kind of trying to tie it all in.” For auxiliary power, he’s intrigued by the German-made Torqeedo electric outboards (www.torqeedo.com). “They’re really kind of futuristic looking, very inter.esting, very efficient,” he says. “You could put one of continued on Page 4



HOMEWATERS BARON from Page 2 those in a little well with a little hatch in it so you’d have a good flow. You could make it so that it would come up and down, since it’s pretty light. It’s 24-volt [with] two 12-volt batteries [in series]. “Another advantage would be that a dory carries weight easily, so you could put two or three sets of batteries in the thing. Also, I would like a little wheelhouse, just to get out of the weather, and so you could put solar panels on top of the cuddy and the wheelhouse for recharging. You could always take a set of batteries home with you for recharging, too. One of the things about electric power is batter. ies, but the dory’s shape will take the weight.”

 WHY WOODEN BOATS? “I swear wooden boats feel better,” Walter Baron says. “They feel different in the water than anything else.” And since wooden boats are often much lighter than comparable glass boats, they can get the same kind of speed with better fuel efficiency, he adds. “I built a boat called a Deadrise 19 a couple of years ago, which is a Tracy O’Brien design. It’s a 19. foot pretty shallow V, but he hits the combination pretty well. It’s a nice riding boat in a chop and got enough room in it for a family of four. The guy put a 75 on it, and it’ll do over 30 knots with a 75-hp motor. You put a 75 on a 19-foot Boston Whaler and it’ll barely get out of its own way. “Plus, the boats themselves are built out of a re. newable resource. Whether they renew it or not is a question you could ask, but there are trees and they do grow. It’s not all pumped out of the ground.” The adhesives used in the plywood and the resins used in construction are minimal compared to what’s in a glass boat, he points out, adding that people today have a lot of misconceptions about wood boats and plywood boats in general. “They think wood rots, like immediately,” he says. “The fiberglass industry in marketing fiberglass boats over the last 50 years has produced a mindset against wood. I’m convinced of it. [But] a modern plywood composite construction boat is every bit as easy to maintain as a glass boat.”

THE EVOLUTION OF BOATBUILDING The old boatbuilders were the innovators of their own times, and their designs evolved with every boat they built. As Baron says, “They did the best with the stuff that they had, and nowa.days guys are doing all kinds of things with the stuff we have now.” One thing that’s very different today is the way wood is being used as a structural material in boat-building, so perhaps there needs to be a new under.standing of what the term “wooden boat” means. “Since I’ve been building boats, it’s totally changed,” he says. “There are guys still building a total traditional style, [but] there are not that many of them. There are a lot of guys building modern plywood style. If you want any kind of skiff or V-bottom boat, it works really well. Baron’s simple Old Wharf Dory is a variation on the Grand Banks fishing dory. “Glued plywood lapstrake is very light, stiff, strong, and it looks real traditional. Some of those boats are beautiful. And I’ve done combinations with a composite bottom and natural timber lap.strake topsides.” The end result is that the boats that Baron is building these days may look traditional, but they are thoroughly modern indeed, just as if the classic British MGB sports car or the ’68 Camaro were reis.sued with all the up-to-date features and acces.sories — the best of then and now. Like those builders of another era, Walter Baron exemplifies what building classic boats is all about: bringing today’s innovations together with the ever-evolving experience of more than 30 years to build real boats for real people. For information, visit www.oldwharf.com. n WALTER BARON / WWW.PHOTOCAPECOD.COM NE WWW.SOUNDINGSONLINE.COM APRIL 2009