Another Boat

In the ongoing effort to document Lesley, each of us in HIST 8151: Studies in American Material Culture has been assigned a separate object that comes out of the same milieu as the Barnegat Bay sneakbox. Some of my classmates were presented with fishing paraphernalia such as knives or nets or traps, hunting accoutrements such as a fowler and wooden decoys, and a sail with a sailmaker’s stencil and needles.

The idea is for each student to perform object analysis on their artifact(s) and produce a catalog record for the Independence Seaport Museum, as well as a research paper on the item. These individual projects should form a network of scholarship within which to situate the boat we call the Lesley, and a clustered look at the material culture of the Pinelands, at least as it is represented in the artifact collections of the Independence Seaport Museum.

While the original concept (as I understood it) was to engage with artifacts very different than Lesley in order to begin to populate the material world in which she was built. However, one classmate and I were assigned other sneakboxes. I’m excited about this opportunity because these sneakboxes are in much better shape than Lesley and perhaps better documented.

So I turn my attention to another boat. Like the Lesley, this one doesn’t have a recorded name. “Lesley” is simply the surname of the boat’s donor and it conforms to expectation of female names for maritime vessels. This other boat was donated by a “Romano.” I found myself hoping, before I looked at the accession record, that it was comedian Ray Romano, so for my purposes, I’ve decided to call the boat “Ray.”

I met Ray in the ISM boat room, espying it (they?) up on the third tier of the storage racks.

Boats in the ISM racks. I managed to not take a photo of Ray.

From my vantage point below Ray, I began my attempt at Jules Prown’s material culture methodology.

First, description. It’s a boat. A curved underside, composed of planks approximately 5″-6″ wide. The top half is painted blue, the bottom is stained or painted brown. The line between the colors seems to be scored, creating a sharp line. The bow comes to a blunt nose, about 4″ wide. The paint job doesn’t recognize this, coming to a slightly asymmetrical point in the front. The stern is somewhere around 5′ wide, it’s hard to see from here. Just visible above the port side is coaming, about 3″or 4″ above the deck in the front but decrescendoing in an S-curve to about half that height around the back. Above the coaming, the point of a centerboard peeks out.

Along the hull, there are occasional holes in the paint, where fasteners (too far away to tell what kind) have been revealed. By looking closely–and making comparison with the sneakbox on the rack above which has much more visible fasteners–I can tell that they occur every foot, and likely indicate the presence of a station. A station, I’ve learned in the last month, is one of the internal supports that runs perpendicular to the keel. I count the stations: 14. That fits with the “15′” label at the end of the rack.

I look for methods of propulsion I’ve seen on other sneakboxes. From below, I can’t see where the mast would be set, but I’m fairly sure there’s a spot. I can see enough hardware on the deck–a pulley, several small cleats–to know that this boat operated under sail. But many boats have alternate means of locomotion when the wind isn’t cooperative. I don’t see anything I recognize as oarlocks. The transom has a space for a rudder, not a block for an outboard motor, at least not one I can see.

Next: deduction. What would it be like to use the boat? What emotional responses might I have to the artifact?

I try to imagine setting sail in the Ray in Barnegat Bay or out in the unsheltered ocean. I don’t know how to sail, but I have vivid memories of riding in a dinghy in my childhood in the choppy water between Dar Es Salaam and the small islands within view of the Tanzanian city. I imagine the spray of the Atlantic to be colder than that of the Indian Ocean.

The sneakbox was designed–as we read in Mary Hufford’s chapter “One Reason God Made Trees” in American Regional Cultures–for swampy inland areas and duck hunting, but the Ray is representative of a different class of sneakbox. I have been told that this is a racing sneakbox, but I can tell from the bright blue paint that the Ray is not made for camouflage like the older hunting sneakboxes–I’m getting a bit into stage three of Prown’s methodology, speculation, here–nor does it have the utilitarian look. I can imagine casually throwing an arm over that S-curve of the aft coaming onto the deck but also opening myself up to the ocean spray. A hunter in one of the drab green-painted hunting vessels might nearly submerge their craft in mud and water and would need the even coaming in still water to keep them and their gun dry.

In this third phase, Prown invites the “free association of ideas and perceptions tempered only, and then not too quickly, by the analyst’s common sense and judgment” (10). What hypotheses might I make? I suspect that the basic overview I’ve been given–that the Ray was a pleasure craft, perhaps used in amateur racing, around the 1960s–is sound. Beyond that, I find myself largely at a loss.

To get beyond that sense of cluelessness, I must design a research plan. To learn more about the specifics of the boat, my starting point is the accession record, which contains an evaluation of the boat’s seaworthiness and more details about the construction that I couldn’t recognize from my close observation (or as close as I could get when it was up on the rack). ISM also has a bunch of sneakboxes, which provide convenient comparison for the Ray.

My classmates and I have already been assigned quite a few readings on the Barnegat Bay sneakbox tradition, some of which I was only able to skim. Those will provide me with more context of the region and the particular craft traditions out of which this form of watercraft comes.

I may be able to learn more about the past owners of Ray, positioning them within social and economic networks. What did Ray mean to the person who built it? What meaning accompanied the sale and then donation of the boat? What did sailing mean to the person holding the tiller? What did it mean to other passengers? The actant theory of Bruno Latour may be a useful tool as I explore the connections between Ray, Lesley, the people who owned and sailed them, and the world in which they existed. While I expect I won’t find as much determinism in these relationships as Hufford found in her interviews with the duck-hunting oldtimers, perhaps I can learn something about the region and era.

Finally, I will compare notes with my classmates as they embark on the same task, exploring the world through different artifacts. While these will not add up to some objective whole that would reveal the truth of the Pinelands, we may be able to connect to networks of environment. Perhaps we’ll learn more about the ISM’s collections and preservation protocols.

The next step is setting up a time to return and have a closer look at Ray and do some more sketching. I’m looking forward to it.

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