The sneakbox started as a New Jersey duck hunting boat in the first half of the 19th century. That is why it has the odd name. The boats are built for hunting to this day so we must assume they are successful at it. Much later a number of remarkable voyages were undertaken in sneakboxes by Nathaniel Bishop in 1875 and by Slade Dale in 1926. The sneakboxes suitability for this type of exploit cannot be assumed because not many people have been inclined to follow this path to fame. Nathaniel and Slade both got a good deal of attention in the press and did much to further the popularity of the type. As the Jersey shore became the place to escape the city the sneakbox mutated into a racing class. There are now two basic types of sneakbox, those intended to hunt and those designed to race. There are a tremendous number of variations on those two themes. The hunters tend to be smaller and carry a sprit rig because it is easy to lift out of the boat and hide. The gaff rigged racers were commissioned by yacht clubs as well as individuals and were popular because they were reasonably fast and relatively cheap to build. That combination is the true holy grail of fleet racing. The boats are still racing on the Barnegat Bay now so the mutation and its subsequent evolution have been a success as well.
In the Workshop we have a number of high school and college interns every winter and spring. At first we simply fit these students into the crew and had them do whatever we were doing. It became apparent we could provide a much richer experience by giving them a project of their own as well as having them help with the shop’s major efforts.
A restoration project rather than new construction was decided on because it is easier for first time builders to envision what the project will be if they have a shape to copy rather than an rather abstract drawing to interpret. The sneakbox was chosen first because the shop’s mission is preserving the local maritime heritage, second because finding a boat to restore would not be too difficult, and third because the boats construction lends itself to our purposes.
The same qualities that made the sneakbox a successful hunter and racer also made it perfect as a restoration project for apprentice boatbuilders. The type was designed to be mass-produced. Everything from the shape of her hull to the joinery work is about building quickly and well. For example the frames are all made to the same curve, it is where they are cut to length along this curve that changes the hull shape. The hull planking runs off the sheer rather than being fit into a stem to make more efficient use of wood and to make it easier to do. The tasks involved in building a sneakbox are readilly broken into segments to be accomplished by groups of students.
A couple boats have been donated to us for this program and a few more have been offered. The one we chose to start with was a racing type built by David Beaton and Sons and represents the pinnacle of that form. Her construction date is probably the 1950’s or 60’s but the boat’s poor condition certainly made her look much older. The pictures show the progression of the work as the boat returned to life but they do not show the number of students involved in it over the past two years. Regular Workshop volunteers and students from six area schools participated in various stages of this project providing the labor and learning the skills needed to transform this boat from a hulk to a living piece of the area’s maritime history.