The Block Island Cowhorn: The Mail Carrying and Sword Fishing All-Season Workboat

by editor

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“A Time to Toot our ‘Horn!”

 Edited by Arista Holden

In the winter of 1993, the Apprenticeshop of Nobleboro, led by Dario Bravi, built the Lester F. Hall, a traditional Block Island Cowhorn from lines dating 1840.

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The Mill in Nobleboro, Maine with Apprentices

John Gardner simulated a rebirth in the small craft of this country of what began as a quiet and passionate conviction, embracing “small is beautiful,” and became a grounded appreciation for the common-sense widely varying craft to harmonize with given waters: the Outer Banks of Carolina, the River estuarries of the Chesapeake and Connecticut, and the deep and often roiled waters of the Maine Coast. These working watercraft spread out like a benign oil upon the troubled waters of an overly plastic and paper world in the Age of Mass Manufacture and Information. 

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The boats in the last thirty years have been characterized by finish, the high gloss of inlaid holly, varnish, brass and glisten. It’s well to go back a bit to the foundations of small craft. On the North Shore of Boston back in the 1920s, the Alpha dories represented the ‘poor man’s Cadillac’, an elegant swift, simple, inexpensive extension of the family’s week to include yachting, workboat style. Back fifty years and the rail bird skiffs and duckers of the Skulkill and Brandywine were doubling, first as workboats, bagging duck and railbird, then, on the weekends -which often meant Monday in that trade- they became recreational racing with a blood-in-yer-eye seriousness and a panoply of Nasty Tricks.

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Photo by Robert Mitchell

The Lester F. Hall, named for the man who built the circa 1950 Mill-turned-Apprenticeshop, in Nobleboro, Maine on Damariscotta Lake, speaks for a way of life, a level of sane economics, a joyful rather then retrogressive affirmation of Thoreau’s celebrated creed, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”

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The Block Island Cowhorn venture yanked down the cost without sacrificing any of the integrity of design or construction. No sandpaper in her construction. Stone ballast. Blocks and comparable hardware made from ash cut out on the property of the Apprenticeshop and gotten out at the block factory – the west-wall workbench of the ‘Shop by Russian Apprentices Dina and Kostya. No shrouds. Pole-masts, cut on Allen Island and donated to us by the owners. Finished off in lindseed oil, with a severe green strake and red sails. Call it, “Homeric simplicity.”

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And so, “What did we do for an encore?” We took the little beast along to the soft underbelly of New England and entered her in John Gardner’s 24th annual Small Craft Workshop at Mystic. We played in the Mystic River, poling off the flats, dumping Kostya out in his skivvies to push, and generally turning the waterfront into a marine circus as we encouraged the “Hall” to teach us. And then followed a circumnavigation of Block Island.

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Photo taken by Robert Mitchell, 1993

The Cowhorn seems to us to best represent independence, unusual, safe, handy, capacious, winter-n’-summer, salt water farm, and island service. She poses a rich period in our maritime history, marked by small, by sensible, by no-sandpaper, and by Block Island founder Adriaen Block’s heritage of Island living. Adriaen Block founded and crewed the Island in 1614. May his star and code of pre-and colonial and post-colonial simplicity prevail – with all that it has to offer a new generation in venturing, carrying the mail, yanking up fish, expeditioning and the great metaphysical tradition of musing about how we might now proceed in the Age of the “Information Highway” and “Made in Taiwan”-increase.

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