This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the June 1993 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
Standing on the edge of Great Bay in St. David’s on a still day, listening carefully, the sound of a hammer hitting nail can be heard drifting across the water. The sound, although faint, would lead you to a small, tin-roofed shed clinging to the northern shoreline. There, far from the commotion of the twentieth century is a place that pays homage to the St. David’s of days gone by.
Inside the shed is a busy workshop cluttered with tools, scraps of wood and rope.
The strong aroma of fresh-cut Bermuda cedar can be smelled from the doorway, where the visitor is greeted by the bow of a fourteen-foot wooden boat under construction. Take a closer look, perhaps underneath the skeletal structure, and you will find the source of the hammering: eighty-nine-year-old Geary Pitcher, lying on his back, securing a steam-bent rib to the boat’s hall. The dusty figure of Mr. Pitcher might take you by surprise as he rises from the sawdust with a broad smile. His weathered face and wise eyes suggest that this man is no stranger to the art of wooden boat building. In fact, boats and boat building have been Mr. Pitcher’s passion all of his life, while more recently, his time has been devoted to the construction of charming wooden dinghies.
When one of these dinghies is spotted skimming across Bermuda’s waters, it is more than likely that the person at the helm possesses the same traditionalist ideals as Mr. Pitcher.
According to one ‘Pitcher dinghy’ owner, lan MacDonald-Smith, “It’s aesthetics. The classic lines, the way it was built and the traditional style do it for me,” he explains, “His boats are floating works of art.” Douglas Selley, another Pitcher admirer says, “It’s just a nice little boat. I’ve always appreciated the design of the Bermuda dinghy.”
Nevertheless, to wooden boat enthusiasts and, indeed, Bermuda historians, Mr. Pitcher’s boats are much more than just aesthetically pleasing. For one thing, they are the only wooden dinghies being built in Bermuda at this time. For another, they are constructed in the same shape as the historic turtle boats displayed at the Maritime Museum. What’s more, Mr. Pitcher, on the eve of his ninetieth birthday has been building boats since the 1920’s, a time remembered well for local boat building. In short, the dinghies and their builder are living pieces of Bermuda’s maritime history. As Mr. Selley says, “They represent Old Bermuda to me; they’re like a connection to the past.”
Although Mr. Pitcher refers to his dinghies as ‘work boats,’ most people use them for a relaxing day on the water. However, when Mr. Pitcher began building boats in the 1920’s, it was unheard of producing a boat for such a purpose. At the time, Mr. Pitcher was working for James Minors as an apprentice at Meyers’ shipyard in St. George’s, a job he started at age sixteen. “I left school when I was thirteen,” he explains, “I went to work on Ray Higgs farm and I pretty-well operated the farm. But one day we were talking and I told him I was going to quit. You see, I had it in mind to be a shipwright (my father was a shipwright) so I quit. I asked James Minors for a job. At first he didn’t want to give me one so he put me to the test. I was given the toughest jobs in the yard, any way he could test me,” he remembers. But the young Mr. Pitcher was not to be discouraged. “The thing is, I was used to hard work after working on the farm. He couldn’t fool me, he affirms shaking his head swiftly.
Mr. Pitcher’s interest really peaked when Mr. Minors was asked to build a fitted dinghy. “I fell for that,” he admits with a nod. But in those days, when ship yards still used the axe and adze, the building procedure was not the high-tech process it is today, nor was it necessarily straightforward.
For one thing, plans were not always provided. “Mr. Minors had to use a model of a boat designed by Nathaniel Herreshoff, to put a drawing on paper. When he was finished, we sent the plans to Mr. Herreshoft, who said it was as good as he could do himself.” Mr. Pitcher smiles, “She turned out to be the fastest race dinghy. We intended to build another one like her, but she was burned, and we never found the blueprints again.”
History repeated itself several years later when Mr. Pitcher was asked to build a dinghy himself. “At first I told the man, I don’t know how.’ But he offered me £40 and all the materials, including a mould. Well, he turned up with a mould alright. It was made of telephone wire. Can you believe that?” he laughs at the gall. “But I was quick-thinking. I put it on a drawing board and came up with some plans for a dinghy.” He has been building the same one ever since. Admittedly, the design has metamorphosed slightly as times have changed. “I’ve improved her a bit. I still use the original moulds,” he says, pointing to the three weathered oak frames holding the planks in position, “But with all the people coming to me for boats to use for pleasure with a motor, I had to widen the stern and the boat and flatten her out a bit.”
The fact that these boats are built with the turtle boats of earlier days in mind helps solidify their position as the ideal pleasure boat. “The old turtle boats were ‘V’ed at the bow and small in the stern with fill sections in the middle. They were easy to row and very stable,” explains Mr. B. W. (Jordy) Walker, a Bermuda wooden boat enthusiast. “They had to be stable so that when the crew tipped the boat with their weight until the gunwale was practically submerged to get the turtles in the boat, they were able to jump on the opposite side to get it level again.”
The building process, somewhat of a ritual by now, begins with the task of finding wood. For the planks, Mr. Pitcher travels into Hamilton to Burland, Conyers & Marirea, where they cut him ten pieces of wood, sixteen feet long and one inch thick. “I put the wood on the roof of my car. My daughter tells me that’s illegal, but I’ve been doing it for too long for it to be illegal. The only thing I have to worry about is swinging the corner. The one down ‘Bay’ is the worst,” he winces as he mentions the bend. The planks, however, are only the beginning. ‘Crooked’ pieces of cedar are very important. “I usually get pieces like that from people who are clearing their land. Even people I don’t know- when they clear land, if they find a piece of cedar, they figure, ‘Give it to that bye Pitcher, he can use it.’ But I can’t use just anything. The grain has to run the shape that you want.” The ‘crooked’ pieces are used for the keel, the stem and the knees, while the flatter pieces are used for the transom and the seats.
The boats are built upright, according to methods that remain etched in Mr. Pitcher’s mind, as only such undocumented methods can be. Once the moulding stations are set along the keel and the stem is in place, the plumb bob (an old Master Lock hanging from the bow in this case) is used to keep it straight. From there, except for the spirit level to straighten it up, Mr. Pitcher judges the proportions of the boat by eye. “Mr. Minors always said, ‘keep it plumb and you can’t go wrong’.”
Although the accuracy achieved by Mr. Pitcher’s keen eye would probably amaze builders of any kind, the design of the boat is never exactly the same from one finished product to the next. “Sometimes I move the moulds forward or backwards for variety,” the builder confesses. But as Mr. MacDonald-Smith will tell you, “That just makes them truly one-of-a-kind.”
Another unique aspect of Mr. Pitcher’s methodology is the huge rusty pipe outside the shed. It appears to come from deep inside the ground, with clouds of steam billowing out. It is here that the oak ribs or ‘timbers are heated until they are hot enough to be bent in the shape of the hull. “I like working the timbers,” Mr. Pitcher concedes, “but I have to be careful. If I overheat them, they can break, and if it’s a cold day, the timbers work me. You have to bend them quickly before they cool down.”
Mr. Pitcher’s interest in his boats does not end when one leaves his yard, and he can get pretty angry when he hears about one of his creations being abused. “I see them around quite a lot. I saw one just the other day. I don’t know where in the world she came from.” he says, “But it makes me so angry to see my work destroyed. When I sell someone a boat I give them a lecture. It takes some work to keep it up, but it’s like the home; if you sweep the home out everyday the floor won’t get so dirty,” he points out matter-of-factly. Mr. Selley agrees, “It’s not that simple. You have to give them a coat of paint once a year, and you don’t have to with fibreglass, but fibreglass is just not the real thing.”
There is still hope for those boats that have fallen into the hands of a fibreglass convert. Mr. Pitcher has been known to rescue abandoned ones. “One day my grandson saw one of my boats under a tree, rotting. The owner told him to take her if he wanted to. So I brought her around here and fixed her up.” As it turned out, Mr. Pitcher’s daughter was quite happy to have a boat around for picnicking.
His reaction is understandable when one considers how long it takes him to complete each boat. When pressed hard, he personally cannot come up with a definite length of time it takes him, but some say it takes about four months. Mr. Pitcher would guess longer, “I like to spend time in my garden as well. Sometimes I work on the boats from eight in the morning to six at night. Sometimes I only work in the morning, and then go to the garden in the afternoon. I like to travel too.”
The image of this elderly man running back and forth from the steaming pipe to his boat on a cold, winter’s day is exhausting in itself, but this combined with the schedule he keeps on a regular basis leaves one wondering what his secret is. In his own words, “You can’t be afraid of hard work. Nowadays people are afraid of hard work; they don’t like to get their hands mucked up. But I always say, if you want something, you have to work for it. I built my house myself, and one day I was cutting the stone by hand when Mr. Minors’ son came by. He saw what I was doing, and yelled out to me, ‘Pitcher, you must have invented work!’ Even my children don’t understand. My daughter tries to tell me the old days were the good old days. I tell her these days are better. Now you can get what you want and want what you get,” he chuckles to himself.
Mr. Pitcher’s mentality is not foreign to St. David’s. As a people, St. David’s Islanders have a reputation for being hard-working and resourceful. It goes as far back as the early days of Bermuda’s colonisation when the Island of St. David’s was isolated from the others. As a result the people who lived there became more dependent on, and for a long time even more comfortable with, the sea than other Bermudians. Furthermore, St. David’s Islanders were known for their carpentry and for skilled boat building. Such a reputation is sure to lend itself to legend and folklore and as stories go, there is one about an old Bermuda dinghy…
There was once a bout lying half-buried in sand on a beach on St. David’s Island. She had been there for generations, forgotten and covered with sea weed.
One day a stranger saw her, he was curious. He called to a man who was passing by and asked her age.
“Age? How old is she?” He paused. “She is so old no one knows how old. Look how well-built she is; nine penny nails, all good Bermuda cedar. Old? You remember the story of Noah, how he was told to build a large ship so that he and his children, and all the animals could get away in the flood?”
The stranger nodded.
“Well sir, Noah’s sons didn’t want to help him build. And he didn’t want to do it alone. So he thought and thought. Then he remembered St. David’s and the fine boats they build there. So he came to St. David’s. Well, they were not building boats just then, but there was a fine one on the beach. After much talk and argument, Noah went away. Yes, sir, Noah went home to build his ark – he said, ‘That boat’s too old for me.’
So you see sir, how old she is?”
One gets the feeling, after talking to Mr. Pitcher and his admirers, that if Geary Pitcher was building boats back then, surely the one on the beach would have been his. Nonetheless, there is no question that Mr. Pitcher is a legend-in-the making. While talking to the lively gentleman, a disheartening question creeps to mind: How much longer will he go on building? “I think this one will be the last one,” he says. Then he laughs, “But I’ve been saying this one’s the last one’ for ten years now!” And what will happen when he can no longer build boats?
When asked about his successors, Mr. Pitcher shrugs off the question, “I guess someone will build boats when I’m gone.” That’s not what Mr. MacDonald-Smith thinks. “When those hands stop building boats,” he swears, “along goes the art of wooden boat building in Bermuda.” It’s more than likely that if that dreaded time comes, what Geary Pitcher will leave behind will be a fleet of charming wooden dinghies, picturesque reminders of the days when Bermuda’s waters were quieter and transportation depended on the hands of a skilled craftsman.
Not to mention the reminder of the hard-working man, in his tin-roofed shed, hammering away at his steam-bent ‘timbers’ while the accelerated pace of the twenty-first century roars on.