Johnny Kinnamon builds boats on Tilghman Island

January 25, 2021

TILGHMAN ISLAND, MARYLAND - Johnny Kinnamon builds boats.

He eyes boards through pupils of black, pooled in irises of watery blue.  The images entering his eyes course through the infinite pathways etched in his brain from building boats for most of his 84 years. 

By himself, and with his son by the same name, Kinnamon figures he has built somewhere north of 300 boats.  Most of them Chesapeake Bay deadrise.  That term describes the angle of the boards coming off the keel and meeting the sides of the boats. Workboats for working watermen.

Some as short as 16 feet - I’m guessing - and others as long as 48 feet and more, with beams of 14 feet.  

They have tons of working space on their decks, fashioned for oystering, fishing pound nets, crabbing trotlines and pots, sipping cold beers and sodas with family and friends on Saturday evenings while coaxing rockfish to take a hook, watching the sun go down. Watching the stars come out.  Feeling the slap of the Chesapeake’s short chop against the hulls.

Strong hands with knuckles enlarged from work and arthritis.

He talks about a boat he has built - or plans to build - that will be named Bourbon Street Lady.  The name is a nod to his time in the Navy, on a tour of duty in New Orleans. He joined when he was 16. Took some lying and a service that needed men.

Did a standard tour, came home to Tilghman Island where he's lived his entire life.  Always on the water and around the water.  A kid rowing a skiff from down the island in an area known as Fairbanks and Bar Neck, up to downtown Knapp’s Narrows.  Snagging a soft crab or two along the way. Diesel and gas engines humming roughly, bells of the drawbridge gates clanging, the general store and church and post office and steady banter of the watermen coming and going from the fertile waters of the middle bay and lower Choptank.

Back from the Navy, no clue as to what to do, Johnny found an old boat.  Fixed it up.  Used it a while and sold it.  

Then another.  Sold it too. 

Working with the boats, eyes and hands and steadily increasing knowledge and skill, he grew more comfortable with the structure, the reasons, the nails, the saws, the progression, the balance.  He felt the satisfaction too.  

One day he laid a long keel board across a pair of wooden saw horses and started building a boat from scratch.  Square stern, pointy bow, lots of time with a pencil on plywood, drawing and figuring, cutting and bending, attaching, connecting, imagining.  

Imagining how this vessel would sit in the water, cut through waves, shed larger seas in storms, provide a stable platform to support a man or two or three or four, working the water with tongs or nets or pots, bring them home in the afternoon or evening.

He finished that one.  Stood back.  Felt more satisfaction.  Sold it.  Others saw it.  Liked it.  

He built another and another and another.  A carpenter building houses for the water.  Plywood and two by four frames, stainless steel nails, fiberglass on the outsides to keep them dry.  

People ordered boats and when they didn’t, he just kept on building.  “Mostly they would be sold before I was finished.”

These days the number keeps growing.  “Slower now.  The doctor says something about my heart.  I should slow down. But I can’t just do nothing.”

That brain, those hands and eyes and mind, aren’t designed by the creator to do nothing.

What used to take two weeks now takes six weeks, or whatever.

Lots of Kinnamon boats around the middle and lower Chesapeake. Johnny Kinnamon builds boats.

I saw him outside the Tilghman country store over the weekend.  

“I think I’m about done building boats,” he said.

“My brain says go, but my body says hell no.” 


Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter