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A vessel for their dreams: Volunteers work to finish replica of oyster dredge

To ensure Oyster Bay's rich maritime history remains living history, a nonprofit organization has been working for seven years to get the new Ida May afloat.

The Christeen Oyster Sloop Preservation Corp., of Oyster Bay, is slowly replicating the Ida May, a dredge that plucked oysters and clams from Oyster Bay from 1925 to 2003. When it's completed, the Ida May will serve as an educational and public service tool to explain the bay, the estuary and the fishery. (Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman)

Out on Oyster Bay on a dreary, drizzly day, the 117-year-old Joseph B. Glancy was raking oysters from the bay floor. At the same time, in a blue-gray metal shed on the southern shore of the bay, volunteers were working with two professional shipwrights to bring to life a reproduction of the Ida May, a sister ship of the Glancy.

To ensure that Oyster Bay’s rich maritime history remains living history and not something just learned in school or at a museum, a nonprofit organization has been working for seven years to build a new Ida May. The Christeen Oyster Sloop Preservation Corp.’s initial intention was to restore the original Ida May, which plucked oysters and clams from Oyster Bay from 1925 to 2003. But it deteriorated beyond repair while the restoration effort was being organized and was demolished in late 2010.

So now the volunteers, including many who previously worked on the restoration of the 1883 Oyster Bay oyster dredging sloop Christeen at the same site, gather two days a week to work with shipwright, or ship carpenter, Josh Herman and an assistant to complete the new Ida May.

The task, originally scheduled to be completed by 2013, has taken much longer than anticipated because money has been an ongoing problem. But despite the slower pace, the boat is about two-thirds completed. And a state grant that’s already been approved could help put the group across the finish line quickly.

In the meantime, the work continues steadily but slowly every Tuesday and Thursday. For those who have witnessed the work over the years, the progress is unmistakable. Ida May now looks like a boat, albeit one without an outer skin or a deckhouse — and with clamps sprouting all over it to hold wooden pieces together pending permanent attachment.

“We’ve made steady progress; it’s just slow,” said Jack Hoyt, the nonprofit’s vice president who manages the day-to-day work.

The project got off to a quick start in 2011, thanks to a $125,000 donation from singer-songwriter Billy Joel, who has a large home across the harbor on Centre Island and who, as a teenager, worked on another oyster dredge in the harbor. “The Ida May is a venerable symbol of a shellfishing industry, which has provided a living for generations of Long Islanders,” Joel said recently.

But after expending that money and more in donations, in early 2013 the group had to lay off full-time shipwright David Short of Maine, and put the project on hold until the end of that year. Then work resumed part-time under the supervision of shipwright Herman of Huntington.

The Ida May Project so far has spent more than $500,000, which included setting up the shop. The $125,000 state grant approved last year could lead to a launch as early as the summer of 2020 by allowing the shipwrights to work full time. “We’ve been awarded the grant, but we need to qualify for it,” Hoyt said. “And to qualify for it, we have to show that we have enough funds to finish the project. And we still have to raise money to meet that” — $100,000 to $150,000.

To that end, the group planned to have volunteers at this past weekend’s Oyster Festival in Oyster Bay, showing off their progress on the dredge as well as selling seafood to raise money.

“It all depends on fundraising,” said Hoyt, 77, a retired computer technician who worked for Dun & Bradstreet. But even if the work continues just two days a week, the volunteers are confident the new Ida May will eventually be carrying up to 40 passengers at a time to explore, to learn about or to fish on Oyster Bay.

To get to that point, Hoyt said, “the mechanicals all have to go in, the pilothouse has to be built, and the deck and hull planking have to be completed.” The organization still has to purchase a diesel engine. A mast hanging from the ceiling is awaiting final shaping and installation.

Staying organized

Inside the shop — itself a replacement of a former shipbuilding shed, Building J, on the former Jakobson Shipyard, which is now a park — an erasable whiteboard displays a list of tasks at hand. Most would be undecipherable to a landlubber and include “fair sheerline,” or smooth the line where the hull meets the deck; “caulk bulwarks stanchions,” or waterproof the posts that will hold up the lifelines from the walls around the boat’s deck, to “make hawse pipes,” or create openings for anchor or dock lines to come through the bulwarks.

Short had undertaken the initial restoration of Christeen in 1996; then when the keel needed to be replaced around 2008, Herman handled that project. Because he was from Long Island and could work on the Ida May part-time and juggle it with other projects, Herman, 45, took over for Short on that project as well.

He’s also worked on Priscilla, Long Island’s only other surviving oyster sloop, which is owned by the Long Island Maritime Museum, and the restoration of Elvira, a Gil Smith sloop restored over 12 years by the Carmans River Maritime Center and relaunched this summer, as well as other classic wooden vessels.

“I do solely traditional stuff,” he said. “We build and restore.”

Herman said he’s not frustrated by the variable pace of work on Ida May. “I understand the nonprofit thing,” he said. “Most of the large . . . traditional boats that are a hundred years old are all owned by nonprofits” — whose funding is often unpredictable.

The rebooted Ida May will be a foot wider than the original 45-foot-long, 15 1⁄2-foot-wide hull, will have a more rounded and larger profile below the waterline and will ride higher in the water to be more stable than the original to meet Coast Guard regulations for carrying paying passengers. Had the original boat been saved, Coast Guard officials had said it would not have been able to carry passengers, the main point of the project.

Several projects at once

On a recent day, the shipwrights and volunteers were working on several projects — the framing structure that will support the deck; the trunk, or lower, cabin; the rub rail, where the hull meets the deck; and the bulwarks, the wall around the edge of the deck.

A pile of planking for the deck sits atop the deck framing waiting for installation. Herman said installing the deck and hull planking would be done close to the launch to ensure that the wood is watertight. “We want to use air-dried wood with the right moisture content so it swells the right amount,” Herman explained. “If we were to plank it now and have it be two years before the boat goes into the water, you could probably put your fingers into some of the gaps [between the planks] because the wood would get to be too dry. We want it to be just a little bit below the moisture content of what it’s going to be in the water. Oak is like a sponge that will get bigger or smaller, depending on how much moisture is in it.”

The pilothouse will be built on top of the boat and then removed because it will be too tall to remove from the shed. The pilothouse and mast will be installed at the boatyard just before launching.

“We’re using 100 percent accurate traditional boat-building methods,” Herman said. The only differences there are might be more power tools involved than when the boat was built in the 1920s. “But the techniques are the same. There’s really no difference between an electric power plane and a hand plane.” The boat is held together, in part, with dovetail joints and wooden trunnels or pegs.

“The pinnacle of the technology was like 100 years ago, and you really can’t improve on it without completely turning it into modern construction with glue and laminates,” Herman continued. “For a boat that’s going to take passengers for money, the more traditional the better, because it’s easier to maintain in the long term.”

Following the traditional methods, the center decking will be hardwood black locust to stiffen the structure of the boat. The rest of the deck will be Douglas fir purchased on the West Coast because it must be perfectly clear of imperfections. “A lot of the wood that we’re using — about 85 percent — has been donated by local tree guys,” Herman said. “We have our own sawmill outside.”

The shipwright said that if additional funding can be obtained to free the grant money and allow full-time work by him and his crew, “there would probably be four or five of us here to bang it out.” But the professionals would continue to work with the volunteers.

“We cannot do a project like this without volunteers without doubling the budget,” he said. “Every single thing about this kind of work is detail-oriented, and everything takes time.”

On a typical Tuesday or Thursday, four to 10 volunteers show up to work. The dean of the group is Bill Shephard, 88, of Plainview. While working as a Grumman Aerospace engineer, he began volunteering at South Street Seaport in Manhattan.

After retiring, he shifted to the Christeen project. On the Ida May, he helped fashion and install the keelson, a beam that attaches to the top of the keel to support the frames to which the hull planking eventually will be attached. Most recently, he has been cutting and shaping some of the 3,400 trunnels that will be used to fasten the decking.

An experienced hand

Shephard is clearly handy. “I’ve had a boat all my life,” either power or sail, he said. He and his son, Bill, a port captain who manages loading and unloading of freight for ships, built a 28-foot Friendship sloop, even sewing their sails. He also has worked at the adjacent WaterFront Center repairing boats.

“I’ve always been working with my hands, and I love boating,” he said of the project’s appeal. “It’s been a real joy for me working down here.”

Another of the Christeen project carryovers is Doug Nemeth, 61, of Syosset, a deck officer on container ships. After helping build the rigging on the oyster sloop, he worked on the framing for the Ida May and then various other aspects of the project. Working once a week when he is not at sea, Nemeth’s current task is building storage lockers.

“I like working with my hands and creating,” he said. “I like the people I work with. And I appreciate the history. If this was a fiberglass boat, I wouldn’t be here.”

Once Ida May is launched, “I’ll probably be disappointed,” he said. “I’ve been coming here for years, and once it’s finished, we’ll have to come up with another project” to avoid a letdown.

Whenever the Ida May is completed, the plan is to turn it front center, as was done with Christeen, for environmental education and fishing trips.

“We’ll get there,” Herman said.

THE OYSTER DREDGE IDA MAY

LAUNCHED in Oyster Bay in 1925 by Frank M. Flower & Sons to scoop oysters from the harbor.

RETIRED AND BEACHED in September 2003 with plans by a volunteer group to restore it as a museum vessel. But it deteriorated, and the damage proved irreversible.

DEMOLISHED in fall 2010. All that was salvageable was the oak keel and stem — the horizontal backbone for the boat and the vertical timber that formed the leading edge of the bow — along with hardware. Some of that hardware may be incorporated into the reproduction.

REPRODUCTION construction began in fall 2011.

WORK HALTED for lack of funds in early 2013. 

WORK RESUMED part time in December 2013.

COMPLETION AND LAUNCHING planned for summer 2020 if additional funding is received.

— Bill Bleyer

How to help

Contributions for the Ida May Project can be sent to the Christeen Oyster Sloop Preservation Corp. at P.O. Box 386, Oyster Bay, NY 11771, or through idamayproject.org.

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