Long Island Traditions
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John Remsen, Sr.
John Remsen, Sr.: Boat builder

 

John Remsen of Freeport is one of the few men on Long Island who builds garveys, a traditional flat bottom boat used by baymen and recreational fishermen in the shallow south shore waters of Nassau and Suffolk County. During his lifetime he has built over 100 garveys. Like the generations before him, John has spent his whole life maintaining a traditional way of life.

John was born in Freeport in 1933, the son and grandson of fishermen and baymen. As a young boy he helped his great grandfather Alanson Ellison go haul-seining on the ocean, before it was outlawed in 1942. He also went duck hunting, trapped killeys and crabs, and fished for fluke and flounder. John spent countless hours at the family's bay house, eventually building his own with his mother Ruth Remsen and Alanson in 1954.

When asked why he started building garveys John replied "It was a need and a want that resulted in building a boat." Until the 1960s the garveys were made of cedar planks and green oak. In order to build the boats they air-dried the cedar at home. They also planed and sawed the edges of the planks. The oak ribs were bent with steam. It took 1 hour per inch to steam the green oak. They would put a pipe in a fire made from the sawed edges that would expel steam onto the oak that was placed in a steam box. Each oak rib was approximately 1_"x 5" times the length of the boat, typically 15 - 16-feet long. Only green oak was used because dried oak would crack.

Today John uses forms and patterns that he has made. He has made 20 - 30 patterns. Fiberglass is used today because it is faster to build the boat. He started using fiberglass in the 1960s. As a result the boat is lighter, and can be put on a trailer. The boat also does not have to be painted.

Like other tradition bearers, John has passed his skills and knowledge to his children and grandchildren. John Remsen Jr. works on the bay part-time trapping killeys for local bait shops. John Sr. also owns a dragger boat, the Miss Renee, which is docked behind his house. Both father and son participate in LI Traditions maritime education programs and festivals, hosting visitors at their family's bay house. John and his wife Grace are also active in supporting the preservation of maritime culture in Freeport, volunteering for Splash, a local environmental organization, and the "Seaport at Freeport." We look forward to many more years of their tireless efforts in preserving the maritime traditions of the south shore.