A talk with the man who fixed the Clearwater

Above, Clearwater first mate Will Cutshall tightens the jack stands during the final stages of the sloop’s restoration earlier in June. Below, Jim Kricker. (photos by Phyllis McCabe)

Above, Clearwater first mate Will Cutshall tightens the jack stands during the final stages of the sloop’s restoration earlier in June. Below, Jim Kricker. (photos by Phyllis McCabe)

jim-kricker-VRTSaugerties resident Jim Kricker knows the sloop Clearwater probably better than anyone. He’s worked on the boat since the 1970s, soon after it was constructed as a replica of an early 19th-century Hudson River sloop by a Maine boat builder in 1969, at the behest of Pete Seeger. As its master carpenter for the past eight years, he has been working with Clearwater’s captains overseeing its multi-phase rebuilding. The project, which cost $850,000 and has taken place on a large barge moored at the docks of the Hudson River Maritime Museum adjacent to the Kingston Home Port Barn and Education Center, is now complete and the boat’s back in the water. The project has taken place under the joint auspices of the Clearwater organization and the newly formed Wooden Boat School at the Maritime Museum, of which Kricker is the director.

Kricker is no ordinary carpenter: he has built and restored gristmills, 18th-century barns, the roof of a 17th-century Polish synagogue and a medieval catapult. Here he talks about some of the high points and challenges of rebuilding the Clearwater, as well as the other fascinating projects he’s worked on:

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Lynn Woods: Give an overview of all the work that had to be done over the past eight years.

Jim Kricker: The last eight years have seen a complete rebuilding of the bottom of the boat. In 2010 we rebuilt the bow, two years ago we rebuilt the stern, and in this go around we connected those two rebuilds by rebuilding the midsection. Since the middle of the boat is so wide and includes the engine room, the centerboard, the galley and a lot of the mechanical systems of the boat, this winter’s work was much more extensive and complex. Along with the ribs or frames, the planking and the centerboard trunk, we have replaced the stem knee — one of the main structural timbers in the bow — the horn timber, the shaft log, the stern post, the rudder post — large structural timbers in the stern — the engine beds and a section of the keelson. Most of the wood used to build the boat in the 1960s was red oak. We are using white oak, and the tropical woods purpleheart and greenheart for the rebuild. These woods are more durable and in the case of the purpleheart and greenheart, much harder and stronger.

 

LW: I’ve read that the original Hudson River sloops were built to be disposable — it was cheaper to ditch them after 15 years of service and build new rather than repair them. Does that mean the construction was not meant to be durable?

JK: It’s kind of like today; some people drive around in a new car every year, some keep their cars for 20 years. [How long a sloop survived] was based on the personal preference of the owner and also how it was used and maintained. There are other sailing boats from the same era that are still sailing today, though they’ve obviously been extensively rebuilt. The Hudson River sloops were built as workboats — they weren’t finished the way yachts were. [When the sloop was built] the Clearwater organization didn’t have an unlimited budget and it was less expensive to use local red oak than to bring in white oak and other woods from farther away.

 

LW: Did you change any feature of the design in the rebuilding?

JK: We changed minor construction details. When a boat has been sailing for 40 years, you get a good idea of what works and what can be improved.

 

LW: You’ve been working on the boat since the 1970s. What was different about this rebuild, and how many workers were involved?

JK: This is the most extensive work we’ve done on the boat so far. On average there have been seven or eight professional boat carpenters — along with three or four apprentice carpenters and the boat’s crew, who have a variety of skills. Altogether there’s been an average of 12 to 15 people working on the boat throughout the rebuild. The work on Clearwater has always been a collaboration of the captains and the boat’s crew; myself and my crew and captains Annika Savio and Nick Rogers have been the real backbone of this restoration. Their knowledge of the boat and her requirements as well as their dedication to the project have been vital in the success of the rebuild. One of the unique and wonderful things about working on Clearwater is the community of young people the boat and its mission attracts. Over the years we have watched many young women and men evolve from hesitant, unskilled teenagers to highly skilled competent carpenters and sailors. They have a very real passion for the boat and the important work she does for the health of the environment in the Hudson Valley.

 

LW: How did you initially get involved with the Clearwater?

JK: I grew up in Saugerties and Woodstock and my father and grandfather always had woodworking shops. As a teen I worked with house carpenters and three of us put together a shop in my parents’ barn and started doing boat building and repairs. We were working on a gristmill in Saugerties building a water wheel when we met Don Taube, who had been commissioned to build the [Beacon Sloop Club’s] Woody Guthrie for Pete Seeger. He didn’t have a place to do it or a crew so we joined forces with him and from this connection got involved with the Clearwater doing repairs.

 

LW: What are the unique challenges of building a boat? I understand you’ve installed your own ship saw, an essential piece of equipment, in the Home Port barn to use on the restoration.

JK: Any boat that’s built these days is based on a three-dimensional grid; you just have to take your layout one step further and introduce the curves that are essential to a traditional boat’s shape. The hull is all compound curves; pretty much every piece has changing bevels, and the ship saw enables you to cut those changing bevels efficiently.  This saw came from one of the numerous shipyards that lined the Rondout Creek in the 19th and 20th centuries; it was designed specifically to build boats like Clearwater. When I bought it in the 1970s, it was bound for the scrap yard.

 

LW: Is rebuilding an old boat more difficult than building new?

JK: When you’re building a new boat there’s a certain sequence you follow, developed to make it as easy as possible. With an old boat, there’s a lot of existing structure around you so you can’t follow that logical sequence.  Every step has to take into consideration parts of the boat that may not need to be repaired yet are in the way of replacing the parts that do need work.

 

LW: How bad was the disrepair?

JK: A lot of the wood we took out was put in that boat in 1969 and in pretty poor shape. In her early years, the crew was just not that familiar with a boat like this so maintenance suffered. Also the Clearwater has sailed mostly in freshwater, which lacks the advantage of saltwater to pickle the wood and prevent rot. But after the early learning curve, the boat has been very well maintained. When the Coast Guard comes to inspect this boat, they pretty much rely on the captains to tell them what needs to be done. That indicates the Coast Guard has some real faith in the crew and their ability to keep on eye on the boat.

 

LW: How long will the current repairs last?

JK: I’d expect our work will last another 40 to 50 years. A lot depends on the maintenance. The planks, decking and some of the new frames will likely need to be replaced over the years, but this is normal with a wooden boat. With a wooden house, you can overlap the roof and siding so water will always be working its way out and away from the structure, whereas with a boat you have thousands of seams that need to be working all the time to keep the water out. You don’t have gravity pulling the water away but instead pressure trying to push water into the structure.

 

LW: What’s been your ongoing role at Clearwater over the years?

JK: I’m always available to work with the captains and crew to make decisions about the health and maintenance of the boat and donate as much time and materials as I can. I’ve got a pretty good stock of lumber and can supply different materials and archaic tools that have been useful to the work on the boat. There will be other projects coming up in the future, including more rebuilding of the hull, which I hope to be involved in. This current project rebuilt the hull below the water line, and the boat needs roughly the same treatment for the hull above the water line. These repairs can wait and probably will be dictated by finances as much as the condition of the boat. While it still has some weak and vulnerable parts, overall it’s a very strong and healthy boat.

 

LW: You’ve been involved in some unusual projects in the course of your career, with a specialty in historic reconstructions.

JK: We’ve built many waterwheels and other machinery for sawmills and gristmills, including a replica of a waterwheel and pumps that constituted the first municipal water system in the U.S. It was originally built in the 1760s to supply water to the city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

 

LW: Was it difficult to reconstruct? What kind of source material did you have?

JK:  The water system was built by the Moravians, who were meticulous recordkeepers, so the original set of blueprints were available in the Moravian archives in Germany.  With a lot of these projects, you can learn a tremendous lot by studying the structures themselves. In this case it had been rebuilt in the 1960s and ’70s but there had been nothing left before then, which is the case fairly regularly. I have also collected a good library of books for boats and mills and other types of buildings.

 

LW: You’ve also worked on some fascinating building projects in Europe.

JK: I helped built a trebuchet in Virginia, then two more in Scotland as a member of the Timber Framers Guild. I have also worked on the replication of a synagogue roof in Poland through the Guild and Hands House studio. Hands House was started by two professors at the Massachusetts College of Art as a way to teach art and sculpture by having the students make unusual objects and learn basic carpentry and construction techniques.

The two organizations put together a project to rebuild the roof structure of the synagogue, which was built in the 1670s. The thousands of wooden synagogues in Eastern Europe had all been destroyed by the end of World War II. This particular building had been located in southern Ukraine, and before it was destroyed in the early part of the 20th century an architecture professor from Warsaw Polytech took groups of students around and documented the synagogues, including this one. I was one of 25 professional carpenters along with many groups of students who replicated the timber frame roof structure. Its board-clad interior was then painted in an elaborate design by eight professional painters (of which one was my wife, Jean Whelan) and teams of students. It’s now in a new museum in Warsaw called the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews.

One of the most memorable projects I have worked on was the rebuilding of a very small old cow shed at the base of an Roman hill fort site in southwestern England. I was working with a couple of British friends who are brilliant historical timber framers. The entire project was done strictly with hand tools.

 

LW: In terms of chronological history, what’s the oldest structure you’ve worked on?

JK: With the same two groups, we raised a 25-ton granite obelisk in a quarry in southern New Hampshire. We wanted to know how the ancient Egyptians did this. Working from a thumbnail sketch and models, we filled a huge box with sand and constructed a long ramp leading up to the box. The base of the obelisk was laid on the sand just past the balance point and the sand slowly removed. As the base sank down lower, large ropes were used to guide the obelisk into an upright position. While this was not an existing ancient structure, the project was a real window into construction techniques that have been in use for centuries.

 

LW: Wow! Anything else odd and/or ancient?

JK: With Hands House Studio in Norwell, Massachusetts, I worked on the replication of a Revolutionary War wooden submarine. This was based on some sketches and period descriptions. In contrast to the huge, complex submarines of today it was tiny, with space for just one man. Based on descriptions and old illustrations we have also built a full-scale working replica of a medieval construction crane at Hands House. This was similar to those used to build the cathedrals and bridges of medieval Europe. Locally, repairs and restorations of the some of the 18th- and early 19th-century Dutch barns in the Hudson Valley have been a real educational and inspirational experience for myself and my crew. Other projects have included repairs to an 1890s manure spreader, replication of an 1840s daguerreotype camera and extensive repairs to a 1917 Bristol Scout biplane.

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