My friend Gregg Sabourin--himself a rower--had come across a unique rowing shell hanging from the ceiling of a bar in Petaluma, California. He invited me over to take a look and the owner of the bar very kindly took the boat down so we could take a closer look. There was no clue as to its origins but the style suggested it was English and dated from the 1930s. It was built of red cedar and fastened with copper clench nails. There was only one clue as to its origins: CRC branded into one of the seat supports. Something Rowing Club we assumed but there were no oars to identify it further, nor was the rowing hardware any help in identifying the boat.
I had recently been teaching classes in boatbuilding around the Bay Area and considered a rowing shell might be a good addition to the workshop menu. Gregg thought taking patterns off the old boat risky because of its age and dubious ancestry. He offered to loft the boat before building a new one so we could be confident that the lines were fair. I had recently been in touch with Dick Wagner, the director at the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, Washington about teaching classes. Dick was himself a rower and had been approached by the family of a young man tragically killed in an accident. They wanted to sponsor a class in his honor and since he had been a keen rower the obvious choice was one of the Petaluma rowing shells.
The Center for Wooden Boats was known for its floating workshop which made it impossible to use a conventional spirit level--an essential tool when building such a long narrow boat. To remedy this I had every student stand on the workshop floor so I could draw the outline of each foot with a felt pen. I gave each student a number and from then on when we needed to use a level all the students reverted to their stations. “Level time” I would say.
The name Max just fitted on the narrow transom but the class was oversubscribed so we ran another shortly after. We considered an appropriate name for the second boat and decided to ask the family if we could call it “Min.” The response was, “Of course, Max had a great sense of humor and would have enjoyed it.”
We asked Dick Wagner to take the new boat out and watched as he expertly rowed out on the landlocked waters of Lake Louise in the heart of downtown Seattle. Dick is no longer with us but the Center continues to flourish and the week long boat building classes became a feature of CWB’s program. Building a recreational rowing shell like the Petaluma remains a considerable challenge and no one has yet attempted it. So Max and Min still hang in the same workshop where they were built some 30 years ago.