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Oyster Dredge “Ida May” Replica Launched in Oyster Bay After 12 Years

What does it take to build a replica of a historic oyster dredge? About $1 million, 35,000 hours of mostly unpaid labor by 70 volunteers aided by a few professionals, and a lot of perseverance in the face of fundraising difficulties and Covid 19 complications.
On May 3, a group of volunteers launched a replica of an Oyster Bay dredge named Ida May that they have been working on for almost a dozen years. That is a decade longer than envisioned when the Christeen Oyster Sloop Preservation Corp., which previously restored an 1883 sailing oyster dredge of that name, began the project.

When the engine is up and running and other finishing details are completed, the group will turn over the vessel to The WaterFront Center, located just to the west of the shed where the Ida May was constructed, to operate for marine education.
The volunteers had hoped to restore the original Ida May, which was launched in Oyster Bay in 1925 by Frank M. Flower & Sons to scoop oysters from the harbor and was one of the first oyster dredges with an engine. The boat was retired and brought ashore in September 2003. But the dredge would not have been able to carry paying passengers under Coast Guard regulations and it deteriorated beyond repair while the restoration effort was being organized and was demolished in 2010. So the volunteers worked part time with a professional shipwright, as money was available starting in November 2011 to build the replica. While the original craft was 45 feet long and 15 1/2 feet wide, the replica is a foot wider to meet Coast Guard regulations for carrying passengers.
Construction began with the aid of a $125,000 contribution from singer-songwriter Billy Joel, who owns a home in Centre Island and worked on an oyster dredge as a teenager. The 32 frames were made from two layers of 3-inch white oak, some of it left over from the Christeen project and the rest obtained in Virginia.
After the final hull plank was installed several weeks earlier, on a breezy spring morning with the Christeen and Bay constable boats standing watch, the widow of Clint Smith, a former town harbormaster who organized the Christeen group, smashed a bottle of champagne against the bow before Ida May was backed into the harbor on a special trailer and then tied to the dock as a fire engine sprayed water into the air and on people standing on the dock in celebration.
“It’s very exciting because for me it’s been a seven-year commitment,” said George Lindsay, president of the volunteer group. “It’s been a tremendous learning experience. It’s been really fun. But the goal was always to get the boat finished and launched, and here we are.”
Lindsay volunteered three months after he retired as general manager of the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at Long Island University’s C.W. Post Campus.
Before the Ida May can be put into service, it is docked temporarily at Oyster Bay Marine Center for its final touches. The vessel still has to pass its inclination tests to be certified by the Coast Guard for carrying passengers and the engine started up, Lindsay said. “There’s a few things that didn’t quite make it on the boat yet.” He said the certification process would take between one and two months but he hopes that the WaterFront Center could begin to take out paying passengers sometime over the summer.
George Ellis, executive director of the WaterFront Center, which will operate the Ida May along with the Christeen, said “the plan initially is to introduce her to the community to get people familiar with the vessel and to have people come out and take a look at her. We certainly also expect her to be an active participant in the current resurgence of oyster farming. So we’ll do educational cruises and perhaps get involved in research and partner up with some of the universities and other groups engaged in oyster farming.”
The vessel will have a capacity of about 44 people. Ellis envisions sailing the Ida May to Connecticut, New York Harbor and the South Shore and maybe even down to Chesapeake Bay during the winter.
Jack Hoyt, vice president of the Christeen group, said, “it’s been a long haul. There’s no question about that. But we kept at it.” He’s been on the board since it was reconstituted in 2009 after the Christeen was refurbished and is the only one left from that year. The new board started with turning Building J on the Western Waterfront into a boatbuilding shop where the Christeen’s keel was replaced and then the volunteers began working on the Ida May.
“The fact that we kept it going week after week was key, even just working one day a week, allowed us not to let the project die,” despite the interruptions in funding, Hoyt said. With supervision from shipwright Josh Herman, “we made slow progress but we did make progress continually. We were going through recovery from the economic recession and that hindered the fundraising and then of course the pandemic hit and that slowed things down. But here we are.”
As to what the volunteers would do next, Hoyt said,
“We’re talking about the next project. There are a couple of ideas that will be much smaller than this one. We’re talking about maybe a whaleboat.”
Bill Shephard, a Christeen Oyster Sloop Restoration Corp. board member whose father, also Bill, worked on the Christeen as well as the Ida May before he died two years ago, said “It’s a great feeling. It’s a great day.” He had been volunteering on and off since the Ida May project began. “It’s been a long time coming but we’re finally here. She looks great. There were times when we ran out of funds and it didn’t look too good, but we were able to find some more donors and we got the project done.”
Doug Nemeth of Syosset worked on the Christeen and the Ida May since the keel was being fashioned. “I did whatever they thought I was capable of,” he said. “I like boats. It is interesting and it was conveniently close.” He said he likes to build things but isn’t interested in operating them so he would be looking forward to the next construction project “for sure.”
Shipwright Herman, a Huntington resident who has been involved with the project on and off since the beginning, said, “I always thought we were going to get here. This is what I do for a living.” He said he’s been involved in other projects that dragged on because of funding issues like restoring the sailboat Elvira in Brookhaven.
Nobby Peers, an Englishman who owns Whitworth Marine Services in Patchogue and served as the contracted project engineer who designed all the mechanical systems, said they still need to finish wiring the wheelhouse and handle a lot of loose ends. He said there were no surprises during the project because “I’ve been doing this a long time.” He said the “one hiccup” was designing the shaft run.
Once the replica was afloat, Herman oversaw the handling of the lines to fasten it to the dock. After checking below deck, he said with pride: “It’s not leaking at all.”