My Steele Peapod: Musings on a Maine rough water rowboat

What is a Steele Peapod?

A genetically modified vegetable that can be grown for ball bearings? Some sort of cunning trick to discourage deer from munching their way through the garden?

Actually, I’m referring to Maine Peapod rowboats built by Jim Steele.

Many old salts consider Jim to be the best builder of small wooden boats on the Maine coast—which is to say, one of the best builders in the world. But a friend of mine just told me Jim has finally lost his battle with cancer. Jim Steele was the only person on the planet who knew how to build a traditional, double-bowed rowboat with modern tools and materials.

Here is a link to the moving obituary from the Ellsworth American newspaper.

A national creative treasure is gone. But not his boats. They will outlive anyone reading this column by at least a century—or two.

The Steele Maine Peapod is considered to be a perfect design—the ultimate combination of grace, form and function. Here is a video about my Peapod, one of the few crafted for both rowing and sailing.

According to experts, the Maine Peapod is believed to have appeared first about 1880. It was commonly used for lobstering among the reefs where a larger boat could not go. The most common length was 15 feet. Peapods are fine rough-water rowing boats. They were designed to be stable enough for the rower/fisherman to row standing up or to put one foot on the gunwale to haul a lobster pot. The design may have been influenced by the birch bark fishing canoes of the Penobscot and Quoddy Indians.

I first met Jim about six years ago at his shop in Brooklin, Maine. Brooklin might ring a bell for some of you—it was where E.B. White wrote “Charlotte’s Web.” This isolated coastal Maine hamlet hasn’t changed much over the years. It is still the small wooden boat-building capital of the world, and home to the taciturn, resourceful people who haven’t budged from the spot for centuries.

As I recall, his two-story shop encompassed about 4,500 square feet. It was uncluttered. Nothing was out of place, and any tool needed was within easy reach. Jim was also a legendary homebuilder. (More on that in a moment.)

He could bend and join wood for boats like Stradivarius could do for violins. There were no wasted movements as he worked, absolutely no wasted materials, no shortcuts, no tricks to save a few bucks. Even though I was “from away,” the job was completed on time (to the day) and at the agreed-upon price (to the penny).

Four winters ago at the City of St. Petersburg’s marina, I met an architect who had worked in Maine in the ’80s. During our chat, the subject my Jim Steele Peapod came up. The architect was stunned. It was like I owned the Hope Diamond. Steele was a legendary figure.

The architect had his own story: When Jim Steele framed a house, every nail that he hammered into a stud was positioned at exactly the same height. Of course, the wood members were all covered with sheetrock, then plastered over, then painted. But it didn’t matter whether you could see the workmanship or not. Things always had to be done exactly the right way.

Jim Steele had little use for theorists, but his life personified the words of the great 17th-century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza: “That which is excellent is as difficult as it is rare.”

Here are some relevant and intriguing web links:

The WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine

Audio interview with Jerry Cumbo, the shop master at the WBS

Audio interview with Sam Devlin, a master boat builder from the Pacific Northwest who teaches at the school

“One Man’s Meat” by the incomparable E.B. White

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