Setting the sails

When Scottsville resident Barry Long put the finishing touches on two-and-a-half years of work, he was only half-sure it would fit through the door. In his spare time, Long had built two flat-bottomed sailboats in his basement, and now he was prepared to alter the doorframe to get them out.

Barry Long documented his boatmaking experiences on his website, eyeinhand.com. His two Melonseed skiffs took more than two years to build by hand.

“I have twin daughters, so I also have twin boats,” said Long as he admired the painted red cedar hull of the Æon. The varnished deck of its counterpart, the Cæsura, practically shimmered under the overhead lamp. Long also beamed. 

“I wanted to be able to take the whole family out, but I knew that whatever I built would need to be small enough to leave the basement.”

Which they were, by an inch or two. On Sunday, August 21, Long and the guests of his boat birthing party hauled the watercraft out, christened them with single malt whiskey and baptized them with a splash of water from the James River. As Long would write on his blog, “Whiskey seemed more appropriate for duck hunting boats than champagne.”

The first Melonseed Skiffs were built in the late 19th century, and named for the kernel-like combination of their tapered bows and blunt sterns. As Long explained, “They’re designed to be taken out with only a dog and a shotgun, and driven by one small sail.” In the winter, coastal farmers from Virginia to New Jersey spent mornings hunting duck and then sailing to nearby cities to sell their hauls, often sleeping curled up in the hull on overnight trips.

Long is more poet than hunter. It’s easier to imagine the serene, soft-spoken Virginia native hoisting a Nikon than a shotgun, even if you aren’t familiar with his award-winning work as a photographer. And though he won’t hunt in them, Long will honor the history of the Melonseed Skiff when he takes his boats to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the winter to photograph the duck migrations.

Until then, Long’s camera will stay trained on the boats themselves, as he attaches the masts and prepares for his first outing. The “marginalia” blog on his website, eyeinhand.com, has featured photos from his skiffs throughout all stages of their construction. Over the years, Long has watched his website trend in Siberia, Japan, Australia and even landlocked Montana, as amateur and professional admirers alike started linking to his posts. On YouTube, a video by Long entitled “Steam Bending Wood in the Microwave” has over 32,000 hits.

“The first time I tried that,” said Long, “I ended up with charcoal in about two minutes.” Long’s unorthodox wood-bending method is only good for molding small pieces, like the white ash struts in the hull of the Æon, but it often saved him the trouble of preparing large buckets of very hot water for the process.

“Wood is an organic material,” said Long. “I had to learn that over and over again. It’s moving all the time, a lot more than we realize.” He traces this lesson back to 2008, when Hurricane Hanna left his basement flooded. Long found much of his handiwork severely warped and had to spend days steaming it, bending it back to shape and properly sealing it.

Of course, it’s always hard to look at a final product and comprehend years of trial and error. When Long was getting started on the Melonseeds—after building a practice skiff out of plywood over three weekends—a friend advised him to constantly change the order in which he worked on the twin boats, to avoid hobbling one with the mistakes of first tries. Long also benefited from the help of his wife and daughters, who varnished the decks and put up with his long hours in the workshop. 

He also owes a nod to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration employed out-of-work shipbuilders by sending them to measure and diagram old American boats. To make his skiffs, Long worked from the mid-century measurements of a boat built in 1888, copies of which he got from the Smithsonian for $15 per page.

To commemorate the basis for his design, Long embedded coins from 1888 under the masts of the Cæsura and the Æon, like hidden hood ornaments. The tradition dates back to the ancient Greeks, who hoped to provide their sailors with toll for the ferry across the river Styx, in case they were lost at sea. (Little known fact: The U.S. Navy still embeds coins in its ships.)

Long also rooted the names of his boats in ancient tradition. “Caesura” and “aeon” —the implicit pause for breath in the middle of a line of verse and an alternate spelling of “eon”—are both Latinate words, and once shared the “æ” ligature that English-speakers now spell out as two separate letters. In the Old English Latin alphabet, this ligature was called “æsc,” which meant “ash tree.” Long used ash wood for the trim and tillers of his Melonseeds.

“The pauses you take in life—hobbies, diversions—they have quite an effect on you,” said Long. “Æon is named for an unimaginably long length of time, and Cæsura for the time of a single breath.”

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