Keeping Family Treasury Afloat; Museum Showcases Unique Boats Hand-Built by Speas

Article excerpt

Byline: JIM SUTTON

"If God wanted me to build a fiberglass boat, he would have created fiberglass trees." - hand-carved plaque by Richard Speas, hanging in the Welaka Maritime Museum.

It's not sufficient to say that Rand Speas' museum is out of the way.

It's not advertised. There's no phone there. It has no Web site.

The Welaka Maritime Museum is more like a part of some witness-protection program - a safehouse where history has been hidden to protect the innocent.

In one way, Speas seems to like it that way - he's alone with the past and the recent memories of his dad, Richard. But in another, he knows that without people - paying people - the special monument to his father's genius could go away forever.

To find the museum, you must first locate Welaka, nestled on the St. Johns River between Satsuma and Fruitland. Things are slow there. You'd hardly know the town had 586 citizens in the 2000 Census. Once the center of a bass fishing universe, Welaka's last bait shop closed its doors in October.

The unlikely museum is housed in a metal building just off the main road. Coming in from the north, if you pass the lone convenience store, you've gone a block too far in what has essentially become a one-block downtown.

Once inside you see the boats - lots of boats. You'll immediately know they're beautiful. There's no reason not to give in to the sin of running your hand down the side of a boat to convince yourself that the shape is that clean, the luster of the hardwoods that deep. Your fingers are likely to cut small trails in the dust along the hull.

Only one boat in the museum is a restoration and not an original - a 1929 Dumphy. And that boat was built only because Richard Speas happened upon a rare 1928 Universal straight 8-cylinder all-aluminum block engine.

"That's what dad did," Rand said, fingering the finish. "Dad found an engine, rebuilt that and then built a boat to go around it."

Rand said that his dad would sketch the boat out on paper and then build what he calls a half-model out of wood. You can see these small versions of the hull shapes on the walls of the museum - one for every boat Richard built.

Then, he'd begin laying up the hull.

The process by which Richard Speas built his boats is unique in the craft. It's tough to imagine, seeing the finished product. On most wooden boats, the boards run for the length of the boat, if possible. The board faces form the hull. Richard cut small pieces of wood - a foot long, maybe less. These were, perhaps only an inch high and 4 to 6 inches deep, laid up on edge. The simplest way to envision the process would be to imagine laying up a brick wall. Each piece of wood is a brick, staggered over the seam of one underneath.

There isn't a staple, nail or peg in any of Speas' boats. He used a special glue to bind the exotic woods together in his hull "wall." The most difficult thing to envision is that the wood blocks weren't stacked up to make a level "face" to the hull as in normal boat-building. If the shape of the boat bowed out from the keel up, the blocks were staggered out in steps of a half-inch or more. If the hull shape tightened toward the gunnels, the wood blocks would begin staggering in. When the whole hull was laid up, imagine looking down the side and seeing perhaps 60 to 100 tiny, jagged steps insinuating the shape of the finished hull. …