The Abaco Dinghy: A Paradigm for Encouraging Simplicity and Artistry

by editor

 by Arista Holden and Lance Lee

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The Abaco in Penobscot Bay, Maine built by Morris Albury circa 1995

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On Man O’War Cay in the Bahamas, the traditions of boat building reflect a culture of resourcefulness, simplicity, artistry and cultivate a sense of embodied mathematics. There is no lofting, no truing molds, and no rigidly following architectural plans. You take out the transom and midship rising frame templates that your grand daddy left you, stretch a keel between them, and set ribbands to create the shape of a boat.

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The conventional western method of following precisely a set of plans and getting out molds ensures a high level of craftsmanship, however it is very time and energy consuming and wood-heavy.

The wisdom in the techniques of the Bahamas offers an efficient and low-energy alternative, which still produces a swift, handsome and sea worthy vessel. The Abaco dinghies built on Man O’War reflect this wisdom. The builder has more agency over the shape than if following plans and a table of offsets, and therefore develops over time an innate sense of what 90 degrees looks like, and where to increase the bevel. Through this technique, the builder becomes an artist.

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Sailing with a pry

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Drawing of Abaco dinghy and sail lacing technique by Derek Lee

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Man O’ War Cay boat builders left to right: William Albury, Basil Sands and Kenneth Thompson

The “midship rising frame” technique ruled the boatbuilding industry in the Bahamas, particularly on Man O’War Cay during the 1940s, where there was an established Loyalist settlement. This technique allowed for efficient construction of strong, symmetrical, swift and handsome boats. The builders used no power tools and just two patterns, one for the transom, and one for the midship rising frame to construct 12’ “dinghy boats” to 50’ schooners, sloops and ketches. The rake and shape of the stem was governed by the particular crook or knee cut and shouldered out of the forest 20 miles away on the mainland of Abaco. The original patterns came down the family line cut out from a builder’s grandfather. The rising-frame technique took place of the conventional practice of lofting in North America and Europe.

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The midship rising frame technique. Photo credit: Ruth Rodriguez

In the winter of 1946, Lance Lee’s grandfather commissioned Will Albury, a Loyalist builder, to build a 30’ sloop, the Wynne. After just one week, he went in to check on the progress. The keel, stem, stem apron, sternpost, transom, all three rising frames, and all ribbands were in place. None there would ever have worked on a Sunday. The work was done in six days. In the 1980s, after having established the Apprenticeshop in Maine and knowing something of how long it takes to build a boat, Lance went down to the Bahamas to visit one of the senior men on the island and asked him how credible the story of building the Wynne was. Kenneth Thompson replied, “I was one of the builders.”

Below demonstrates the sequence of building an Abaco dingy using building methods that exclude lofting and getting out molds. Photos and notes by Ron Midgett. Boat built by Lanard Thompson on Man O’ War Cay, circa 1980.

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Natural crooks drying in full sun after being soaked and cured in seawater for 6 months at minimum.

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Initial set up with midship rising frame, forward quarter frame, and the sheer battens and three ribbands for initial shape taking.

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Crook being tested up against forward frame.

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Two more ribbands installed for taking shape of aft frame. Four frames are in now.

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Additional frames and braced frame members installed and supported by ribband cradle.

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Floor timbers trued and installed.

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Forward cant frames with spreaders and floor timber. Rabbet trued up to receive first plank.

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Ribbands are removed and first upper binder strake and # 2 plank are hung.