Old boatyards were special places

Published 5:27 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2019

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The places of commerce that we knew as youngsters had their own unique settings and their own unique aromas.

All of us were familiar with country stores where driveways were often paved in soft drink bottle caps. The caps were plentiful, slow to rust and clung to each other as well as gravel.

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Those driveways were also collection points for motor oil, which was invariably leaking from old pickup trucks and autos that were parked there. The driveways had a unique, but not unpleasant odor.

And the stores each had their own combination of odors. Invariably, there was the smell of country hams, shoulders and Dan Doodles, of rat cheese and loaf bread, all overlain during the summer months with a touch of fly spray made necessary by screen doors that never kept the winged intruders out. The combination was pleasant and familiar.

The odors that were to be found in boat yards, on the other hand, were far more complex. The yards were paved in dead barnacles that had been scraped from wooden boat hulls on a railway. Their salty, pungent odor was more distinctive, and in my view far more pleasant, than motor oil could ever be, but contributed only a portion of the odiferous mix of a busy boat yard.

The distinctive aromas that came off those yards had a lot to do with the boats and the times. Plastic boats were yet to arrive in large numbers, and the workboats and even pleasure boats of the mid 20th-century were still predominantly built of wood. On the Chesapeake, the favored wood for hulls and decks was juniper, a durable, rot-resistant strain of cedar native to the Great Dismal Swamp. Juniper has a pungent and altogether pleasant aroma that permeated the boats that were clad in it.

There was always some carpentry underway in a boat yard because there was almost always some failing rib or deck plank that had to be replaced when work or pleasure boats were pulled from water onto the railways of those times.

The smell of juniper and dead barnacles were only the underlying base on which the complex odors of a boat yard were built, however. There was always a generous coating of copper-based bottom paint, but it couldn’t compare with the pleasant scent of linseed oil that was the base for topside paints, or spar varnish where bright work was desired.

And, rounding out the aromas was the smell of manila rope, soon to be replaced by synthetics, but back then still in wide use as mooring and anchor lines.

In Battery Park, the David Lowe boat yard included Capt. Lowe’s boat shed, where he built bateaus and, before my time, small sailboats known as Battery Park sloops. All the above odors came together there, as did the fire hazard that eventually destroyed the boat shed and many of Capt. Lowe’s prized tools.

Even the grease that coated the railways of those days, and the creosote pilings on which the rails were fastened, added to the mix of a working boat yard.

Today, fiberglass is the boat building material of choice, and epoxy has replaced linseed oil. As a result, there is an overall chemical smell to modern boat yards that’s a reflection of our modern times. The aromas of the past linger only in in a few memories.