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A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time: Joel White's Last Boat

Overview

In a time when racing boats are mass-produced from synthetic materials, a dying breed of craftsman continues to build wooden sailboats of astonishing beauty. Boatbuilding is an ancient art, and Joel White was a master. Son of the legendary writer E.B. White, he was raised around boats and his designs were as sublime and graceful as his father's prose. At a boatyard in Maine, White and his closely knit team of builders brought scores of his creations from blueprints into the ...

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Overview

In a time when racing boats are mass-produced from synthetic materials, a dying breed of craftsman continues to build wooden sailboats of astonishing beauty. Boatbuilding is an ancient art, and Joel White was a master. Son of the legendary writer E.B. White, he was raised around boats and his designs were as sublime and graceful as his father's prose. At a boatyard in Maine, White and his closely knit team of builders brought scores of his creations from blueprints into the ocean.
In June 1996, six months after being diagnosed with cancer, Joel White began designing the W-76, an exquisite racing yacht. It was his final masterpiece. Douglas Whynott spent a year at Brooklin Boat Yard, observing as this design took shape, first in sketches and then during the painstaking building of the wooden craft.
The result is the poignant tale of both a genius at work and the people devoted to his art. Evoking E.B. White's New England and its salty residents, A Unit of Water, a Unit of Time is a classic portrait of dignity, charm, and humble magnificence-and of a maritime community that keeps a vanishing world alive.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
San Francisco Chronicle Whynott's attention transcends his obstensible until it becomes a profound look at the human condition.

The New Yorker The book is cheerful in its portraits of men engaged in a work that satisfies in its difficulty, elegant details, and infallibly stirring results.

The San Diego Union-Tribune This discreet account of Joel White's final year is as spare and elegant as his vessels.

Boston Magazine This is a book about the value of work, about the beauty of craftsmanship, and about a group of people whose ritual days help keep a vanishing world alive.

Kirkus Reviews An affectionate, affirmative, yet lighter-than-air look at the life and work of Joel White.

Bill McKibben author of Maybe One A Unit of Water, a Unit of Time is as lovingly constructed as the boat it describes, and offers its readers the chance for a calm but vivid voyage.

Publisbers Weekly With understated grace, the author evokes a sense of maritime community as well as a fierce devotion to boats and a love of the sea, which emerges as an almost mystical form of communion with nature and the cosmos...E.B. White would have approved of this quietly profound book; it's a real beauty.

Tracy Kidder author of Home Town This is a charming and moving depiction of a contemporary genius at work, one who happens to be engaged in the ancient art of making boats. It is a necessary book for anyone afflicted with the passion for messing around with boats.

Library Journal Whynott skillfully weaves a story that speaks both of the love of his craft and the art of writing.

New Yorker
The book is cheerful in its portraits of men engaged in a work that satisfies in its difficulty, elegant details, and infallibly stirring results.
San Diego Union-Tribune
This discreet account of Joel White's final year is as spare and elegant as his vessels.
San Francisco Chronicle
Whynott's attention transcends his ostensible subject until it becomes a profound look at the human condition.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671785260
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 456,484
  • Product dimensions: 0.72 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Douglas Whynott is the author of Following the Bloom and Giant Bluefin. He has worked as a piano tuner, apiary inspector, blues pianist, and dolphin trainer. His writing has appeared in Outside, the Boston Globe, Reader's Digest, and many other publications. He lives in New Hampshire.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Launchings

June 1996

It's a good day for sailing, at Center Harbor in Brooklin, Maine. The sky is clear and the temperature has risen through the fifties, and there's just enough of a breeze, gentle on the land and slightly stiff over the water. At Brooklin Boat Yard it's a launching day, and among those gathered at the yard — the boatbuilders, those coming to watch the launch, those here to sail the new boats — there are many shades of anticipation, concern, and excitement. Launching days are big events, after all, a time when the work of the year is revealed and the dreams of the owners hopefully come true.

Two boats are sitting in the yard, up on jackstands, one behind the other. They seem suspended in motion, like stilled thoughts, some element of gravity missing just now (water) and some aspect of time (forward movement). The boatbuilders hurry about, climbing up and down ladders, moving to and from the shop, rigging lines and bending on sails, thirty feet from the dock. There's a huge mechanical contraption standing nearby, the Travellift, soon to pick the boats up in slings and set them into the water, once the high tide has come.

The boats are of a new design called the Center Harbor 31. They are beautiful to look at. The curved lines that run along the surface and toward the bow are instinctively pleasing, comfortable to rest the eye upon. At the bows of both boats are wreathsdressed in ribbons and flowers, wearing lustrous white, with the lovely lines, these two Center Harbor 31s, called Grace and Linda, could seem like two beautiful schoolgirls off to the prom.

They are the product of the design work of JoelWhite, who began his career as a boatbuilder forty years before, constructing wooden lobster boats with an older boatbuilder. He bought the yard, built many more boats, and as of late has been creating a style of design that has become his own, one that he's become famous for — boats simple of line yet sound in engineering, traditional above water and modern below.

Steve White, Joel's son, runs the yard now, and through the morning organizes the work on Grace and Linda. He also spends some time rigging, the work he enjoys most. Suspended on a bosun's chair from a hoist on the Travel-lift, he goes about attaching the roller furling jib unit to the mast. Nearby is Bob Stephens, project foreman for the two boats, helping to get the sails on.

The owner of Grace, whose name is Frank Henry, was by early this morning to check on the progress. He and his wife have a summer home in Brooklin. Frank Henry had come up to the yard from New Hampshire several times over the winter to see the progress of the construction and to talk to the boatbuilders — he'd been surprised that the crew had been willing to take time out to talk to him, even though the pressure was on to finish by the launch date. In the fall when they were still in the planning stages, Henry had been in Brooklin to confer with Joel White on the design. He had built Grace in fact, in order to have the experience of participating in the development of a new boat. Grace is the result of that effort and for Frank Henry this is a satisfying day. His children and grandchildren will be at the launching, and his wife, Grace Henry.

Previously the Henrys had owned a 42-foot racing yawl, with eight berths, a charcoal stove, and a supply of hot water. They had raced to Bermuda, cruised the Great Lakes, and sailed to New Brunswick, and the boat was the vehicle of many family memories, but after the Henrys' children grew up and got their own families and boats, the 42-foot racing yawl seemed much too big. One afternoon when they were sailing in Eggemoggin Reach the Henrys came upon a red-colored daysailer with beautiful lines-Joel White's personal boat, Ellisha, a fiberglass model called the Bridges Point 24 that Joel designed for a local boatbuilder. When Grace Henry saw Ellisha she said, "Now that's more like it."

Frank Henry sailed a Bridges Point 24, and he considered buying one. But Henry wanted something more in a boat, and he wanted an experience in designing it. After talking with Joel White he looked through books about boats and yachting. In Sensible Cruising Designs, by L. Francis Herreshoff, he came across a 29' 6" daysailer called Quiet Tune, one of Herreshoff's "lifestyle boats," based on a simple approach to sailing. Quiet Tune, built in Maine in 1945, was designed for short cruises for two people. It was set up with a ketch rig-with two masts, a mainmast ahead of the cabin and a smaller mizzen mast stepped just forward of the tiller. Quiet Tune appealed to Frank Henry. He liked the simplicity of the boat, and its size, and he liked the ketch rig because of the many sail combinations. They would allow him to make a lot of adjustments, to pull a lot of strings, as it's said, yet the boat would also be small enough for him to sail alone.

Joel White drew a preliminary sail plan based on the lines of Quiet Tune. He tried to convince Frank Henry to build the boat as a sloop, but Henry wanted a ketch rig, and so Joel eventually devised a way of incorporating a mizzen and its rigging without too much awkwardness. Henry liked the looks of the sail plan and lines drawing, so they moved on to more detailed ones. They faxed comments and ideas to each other. As the two interacted, a new boat grew out of Quiet Tune, and eventually the names on the drawings changed to the Center Harbor 31 and Grace. Henry, who had studied engineering in college before going to law school, enjoyed both the technical exchanges and the creative part of the process, the dreaming up of a boat that met both his and his wife's needs.

But before he signed a construction contract he made a condition that the yard must find a second client, since building two boats would substantially cut the costs. That second client was Alan Stern. He had arrived in Brooklin the night before with his son, Brian. They'd just come from Brian's college graduation, and planned to sail their boat back to Connecticut. Stern had built several boats, sailing them primarily on Long Island Sound. When he called Joel in the fall and heard about the Center Harbor 31 project, he soon signed on. But Stern didn't want a ketch rig. He wanted a sloop, with its bigger mainsail, so as to better utilize the light airs of Long Island Sound. Stern also wanted an enclosed head and a self-balling cockpit, and he wanted to be able to fly a big spinnaker. So Joel drew a boat with a deeper ballast keel, and slightly more freeboard, and a bow with more forward overhang. Stern named it Linda, after his wife.

Stern was pleased with the looks of Linda. He liked the big cockpit with the eight-foot seats of sculpted teak, and he liked the way that the above-water appearance of a boat of forty to fifty years ago matched with the modern below-water appearance. Stern felt that with Linda, he had contributed to the development of the Center Harbor 31 in its sloop version.

The people from the General Store arrive at the yard, and set up a buffet table. Others come from the town. There's Doug Hylan, who runs a boatyard down the road, Benjamin River Marine, and who used to work for Joel White. There's Maynard Bray, who has also worked here, over the years, who is an old friend of Joel's, and who like Joel has written technical pieces and reviews of boat designs for WoodenBoat magazine. And Jon Wilson, the founding editor of WoodenBoat. There are the families of the boatbuilders. The cars are parked in the lot by the shop, and along the road up the hill from the harbor.

Amid the preparations and the gathering of the crowd, Joel White arrives. He's walking with crutches, and his wife, Allene, is with him. This is Joel's first time at the yard since undergoing an operation to have a section of his lung removed in Boston a few weeks ago. He's been dealing with lung cancer for the past six months, and he's been using crutches since undergoing a bone graft in his leg, also the result of cancer. He's bald from chemotherapy, wearing a visor cap, and moving gingerly, but Joel is cheerful. There's warmth and curiosity in his eyes. He's a handsome man, grown from the handsome boatbuilder of twenty years ago, and the handsome boy who moved here with his parents, E. B. White and Katharine S. White, sixty years ago.

They take a seat on some planking ahead of Grace, and soon people start coming up to say hello. One friend, named Bill Mayher, stands a few feet away and asks, with a deep look, "So, how are you doing?"

"Pretty good," Joel says.

Then another friend comes up, looking concerned, even a bit afraid.

"How are you?"

"Good," Joel says. He smiles, says he'd been to "Thoracic Park," that he'd asked the doctor if he knew the difference between a "lobeotomy" and a "lobotomy," and that the doctor had said it was just a matter of a different spelling. He laughs a bit shyly.

Of course there's a deep affection for Joel among these people, his friends, those he's sailed with, people he's employed and taught about boatbuilding or boat design. Many feel they've been touched by him in some way. Joel is described as brother, father, friend by them. He's someone who creates beautiful boats in a place where people appreciate beautiful boats.

"How are you feeling?" someone else asks.

"Pretty good," Joel says, smiling, glancing away.

I've known Joel White since January, when I toured the coast of Maine looking for a boatyard where I could watch the construction of a wooden boat. When we met, Joel had just found out that he had cancer, but he didn't say anything about it. He showed me some of the projects at the yard. The hulls of Grace and Linda were being planked then, and so was a Buzzards Bay 25, another of Joel's traditional but modern renditions, in this case a Nathanael Herreshoff boat. We looked in on Easterner, a 12-Meter racing sloop built in the late 1950s and once a candidate for the America's Cup, undergoin g a thorough rebuilding of the hull. Joel drove me to other boatyards in Brooklin, to Eric Dow's shop, where they were building an Araminta, an L. Francis Herreshoff design from the era of Quiet Tune, and to Doug Hylan's shop, where he and his crew were putting new frames, or ribs, in an old sardine carrier being restored and converted into a yacht. He took me to junior Day's shop, where that seventy-five-year-old boatbuilder was shaping out the keel for a 24-foot lobster boat. Joel and I got sandwiches at the General Store and stopped to have lunch in the parking lot of his yard, where it was snowing lightly, and we talked about nature — I told him about when I'd trained dolphins, and when I let a giant sea turtle go in Nantucket Sound, and Joel told me about how on another snowy day, the kind of storm with big flakes, he'd seen an eagle soar down near the windows of his design studio.

And we also talked about writing, and about his dad. I'd been teaching journalism and writing for several years as a college lecturer, and I said that I'd used E. B. White's Elements of Style in courses. When I quoted from it, or rather misquoted, saying one of the rules as "Cut unnecessary words," Joel corrected me, saying, "Omit unnecessary words." He told me his dad said that Professor Strunk omitted so many words he was left to repeat himself: "Omit unnecessary words, omit unnecessary words, omit unnecessary words!" Joel said with a little laugh. It was such a pleasure to talk about both boats and writing. At the end of this visit, while I stood in Joel's office, a third-floor studio with a spectacular view of the harbor, I asked him if he was the boy in E. B. White's essay "Once More to the Lake," as tender a look of a father to a son as I'd ever read. Joel said he was, and then looked down so that the visor of his hat covered his eyes.

After that day, I was also someone who'd been given something by Joel, through the mere pleasant experience of talking about boats and writing. For a good day can be an aesthetic experience in itself.

Now at the launching, in between the greetings, Joel and I talk again. The yard has come a long way from the time he'd taken it over, thirty-five years ago. Since Steve had begun running the yard during the 1980s, business had increased by three or four times. Steve had added on, and bought the Travel-lift, for $80,000 — "Something I would have had a lot of trouble doing," Joel says.

Steve had taken over at the right time. "I've been very lucky in my life," Joel says, "that things have come along at the right time."

This seems a bit peculiar, for someone to say how lucky he's been, just after having a section of his lung removed. But the remark struck a chord too. I had read that E. B. White also thought of himself as lucky and believed in his luck, even pointing to the date of his birthday, July 11, 7/11, as a symbol for it. Once when asked what a writer needed to be successful he had said, "Be lucky."

Grace is in the slings of the Travel-lift, her stern toward the water, her bow pointed at the crowd, the ribbons streaming. Frank and Grace Henry walk over and stand under the bow, and their family gathers nearby. Frank Henry thanks the crew, and points out Bob Stephens, whom he'd known at another yard in southern Maine. Bob had made the project all the more enjoyable, Henry says. He thanks Joel for the design and for the experience of working with him. "Grace will be staying right here in Center Harbor," Henry says, "where everyone can see her."

Then Grace Henry speaks. She tells about being on their yawl and coming upon Ellisha. She says she saw the Center Harbor 31 when they were building it, "when it was on its belly." It had looked awfully big then, she says, and they told her it would look smaller in the water, but still she's not sure. Grace Henry takes a slip of paper from her pocket and reads it:

"May she bring pleasure to her captain and crew,

May she be well found and fast,

May she be the envy of all,

I name her Grace."

She swings a bottle of champagne at the stem, and swings again. Cheers go up, hands are raised in applause. Cameras are held high. The Travel-lift starts up with a cloud of smoke, and beeps its way down the tracks of the dock. Grace is then lowered gently into the water, like a nurse setting a baby into a bed. The slings go slack, the boat is floating, and there are more cheers. Grace turns and motors off into the harbor, and soon the sails are rising up the mast.

Linda is next. More people come up to see Joel. Allene is next to him. They met when Joel was in college, at MIT, she says. She'd been studying journalism, and now writes food columns for newspapers in Bangor and Portland. Allene had in the early years worked at the yard, keeping the books. She says that when they first put a phone in, she spent a lot of time looking for him — "It's really easy to get lost in a boatyard." But Allene says she doesn't know much about boats, that she stays away from them. Her boys are into boats, with Steve running the yard and John working as a fisherman. Allene is more interested in literary things, as is her daughter Martha, a writer — though Martha is also married to a man who owns a boatyard.

"It must have been nice to see Joel's career develop," I say.

"He was good from the beginning," she says.

When the Travel-lift positions Linda by the dock, Alan Stern and Brian Stern stand under the bow. They're a small group, after the Henrys. And Alan Stern's day is tempered with frustration because the jib roller isn't working, and they won't be sailing the boat very far. Stern says he hadn't known there would be this kind of celebration at the launching. But he too thanks the crew, and Joel, and finally says, "This is the most beautiful boat I've ever seen in my life."

There's no bottle breaking this time, only the sound of the Travel-lift starting up again. Linda swings down the dock and into the water. They motor over to the main dock and continue loading the sails. Eventually Linda heads out, but only under a mainsail, and it's a haphazard ride.

Grace slides through the harbor on repeated runs. The Henrys sail it, and the Henry's children sail it, and so do various crew members, deftly turning and pulling up to the dock. There are cameras going off, shouts of praise.

At the shop, people line up for the buffet and then sit out by the seawall to watch. Joel makes his way down the dock and the ramp. Leaning on his crutches, he looks at Grace sail by. One of those who'd been sailing on Grace goes up to him and says, "Those are beautiful boats!"

"Not too bad," Joel says. A few moments later someone else turns to him and says, "That's an incredible boat!"

"It's a nice boat," Joel says.

You had to wonder about this response too, so muted. We live in an age of fist pumping and selfglorification, of unselfconscious self-promotion. A nice boat?

But then again, this is the son of the man who wrote the story about the spider that wrote "humble" in the web.

Tracing the lineages of boats is like tracing the lineages of songs. It's a matter of influences. A sheer line or bow profile is transposed, and transformed, personalized and made original. In the case of Grace, and before her, Quiet Tune, you could trace a line back to a 14-foot Bermuda racing dinghy called Contest. A fast boat, Contest was also beautiful to look at because of its shape, particularly because of the hollow or reverse curves of the waterlines.

Nathanael Herreshoff, the greatest of boat designers, creator of many America's Cup winners at the Herreshoff Mfg. Co. in Bristol, Rhode Island, may have seen Contest when he spent a winter in Bermuda in 1911. Herreshoff was in his sixties then, and for many years had been designing racing boats with long overhangs (projecting ends) and waterlines with simple outward curves. He took such a boat to Bermuda in 1911, 23 feet long, with low freeboard (hull area above water) and long overhangs, but found he needed something that could fare better in the strong winds and waves.

Herreshoff returned to Bermuda in 1913 with Alerion III, a centerboard boat with lines that may have been a refinement of the shape of Contest. Twenty-six feet long, Alerion had moderate overhangs, higher freeboard, and hollow curves at the bow, lines that are said to be of a transcendent beauty. The design of Alerion was a turning point for Nathanael Herreshoff, who in 1914 created the Buzzards Bay 12 1/2, and in 1916 its enlargement, the 20foot Fish Class sailboats. Enlarging Alerion, Herreshoff in 1914 designed the Newport 29, though it was a full-keeled hull and not a centerboarder. Five Buzzards Bay 25s were launched in 1914. A longer and sleeker version of Alerion, the Buzzards Bay 25 is said to be Nathanael Herreshoff's favorite design, and is in the opinion of some, including Joel White, the most beautiful hull shape ever created. Maynard Bray, writing in WoodenBoat of the Buzzards Bay 25s and of the hollow-bowed boats of Herreshoff, recommends visiting the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol to look at the Buzzards Bay 25 Aria, suggesting that it will be an "almost religious experience...I guarantee she'll take your breath away." Alerion can be seen in the Watercraft collection at Mystic Seaport Museum.

One of Herreshoff's sons, Sidney, used the half-model for Alerion to create the Fishers Island 31. Twelve of those 44-feet-long boats were built between 1927 and 1930. One of them, Cirrus, was still sailing in Center Harbor in the 1990s, and stored at Brooklin Boat Yard.

Another of Herreshoff's sons, L. Francis, worked for the designer W. Starling Burgess during the early 1920s and opened his own design firm in Marblehead, Massachusetts, around 1926. It's been said that while Nathanael Herreshoff was the consummate engineer (studying at MIT, developing steam engines, developing America's Cup yachts), L. Francis was more the artist, and that because he was so concerned with aesthetics he lacked the competitive instinct to build winning racers. As a boy he watched his father drawing and making models — his bedroom was next door to his father's design room — and as an adult L. Francis Herreshoff showed both the influence of his father and an originality in his own work. Over a period of forty years he created about 107 designs, ranging from decked canoes to schooners to power cruisers. He is said to have designed some of the most beautiful boats ever created — the 57-foot ketch Bounty, designed in 1934; the 72-foot ketch Ticonderoga, 1936; the canoe yawl Rozinante, 1956. The younger Herreshoff's trademark was the ketch.

Quiet Tune was 29' 6" long, with hollow waterlines and a transom with a wineglass shape. Designed for Ed Hill, a marine hardware representative from Newcastle, Maine, it was built at Hodgdon Brothers in East Boothbay in 1945. Hill usually sailed it in the late afternoon. (The first Araminta, known as the successor to Quiet Tune, was also built for Ed Hill, by Norman Hodgdon in 1954; also a ketch, and a daysailer, Araminta was three feet longer and had a clipper bow rather than a spoon-shaped bow.) Quiet Tune had several owners, including one in Newport Beach, California, before she was donated to Mystic Seaport Museum in 1993. Araminta also visits there occasionally, and the two boats often lie side by side.

L. Francis's Quiet Tune is said to be a narrower, deeper version of his father's Buzzards Bay 25 design, though with a ketch rig — and so Alerion is a presence in the boat. But Quiet Tune is also within a family of 20- to 30-foot daysailers built in New England beginning in the mid-1930s. The 20-footers Popeye and Mink were designed by Charles Hodgdon and built at Hodgdon Brothers around 1935. They were followed by the Boothbay 20, designed by Geerd Hendel and built by Hodgdon Brothers and other builders from 1935 until about 1960 (two of these, India and Blue Witch, are housed at Brooklin Boat Yard). In 1936 Starling Burgess designed the Christmas Cove daysaller, also built by Hodgdon Brothers. In 1937 the Yankee One Design appeared, built by Quincy Adams and various other New England yards. In 1938 L. Francis Herreshoff designed the Ben Ma Cree, built by Britt Brothers in West Lynn, Massachusetts. Sonny Hodgdon built Quiet Tune in 1945, in East Boothbay; then, in 1954 he came out with his own design for a daysaller with lines similar to Quiet Tune's and said to be just as beautiful, the Hodgdon 21 — one of them, Nasket, has been kept at Brooklin Boat Yard for many years.

When Frank Henry chose Quiet Tune as the basis for his own boat, Joel White made an analysis of the design. He found that for her size Quiet Tune had weak sailpower, that she was underrigged. He knew that if he improved the stability of the boat, by changing its underwater configuration, he could increase sail area, and thus the power and speed — and also perhaps improve looks.

Quiet Tune was built by traditional plank on frame construction, and had a long keel with a rudder attached to the aft end in cross section, the hull was shaped like a wineglass, and even tending toward the Y shape. This was a design that made for a high center of gravity. It also had a rather low "form stability," because of the "slack bilges," the flatness of the sides of the hull just below the waterlinewhich meant that when the boat heeled from the vertical, less volume was being put into the water and stability was decreasing.

Joel White designed an improved hull that was more cupshaped and that had a few inches more beam than Quiet Tune. Instead of a long keel faired into the bottom of the hull, made of heavy timbers and lead, Joel White designed a hull with a fin keelan appendage that looks like a shark's fin, narrow yet deep, and which had a cigar-shaped bulb of lead at the bottom. His design would not be built of oak frames and cedar planks, but instead of light strips of cedar covered with glued layers of thin mahogany veneers running diagonally — a relatively new construction method called cold molding. Because the hull of the Center Harbor 31 would be lighter than the original Quiet Tune hull, more lead could be added to the bottom of the fin keel, lowering the center of gravity and increasing the stability. Yet the Center Harbor 31 has about the same displacement — 7,916 pounds — as Quiet Tune. The changes, and increased stability, enabled him to increase sail area, from 352 to 441 square feet for a gain of 20 percent with Grace. The gain on Linda was even greater. A spade rudder was at the aft end of the waterline on both boats, a device that improved maneuverability.

The lowered vertical center of gravity, to 1.5 feet below the waterline, allowed Joel to make improvements in another area where he found shortcomings, the cockpit. Sailors and passengers in Quiet Tune sat on the floor of a shallow, self-bailing cockpit, in a somewhat awkward position due to the placement of backrests, and it tended to be an uncomfortable ride after a while. But on the Center Harbor 31 the cockpit was made deeper and non-self-bailing, and there were teak seats with a molded shape, and backrests, canted at a comfortable angle, that also served as the coamings, or outer walls, of the cockpit.

Quiet Tune was an austere boat, in keeping with the designer's belief that sailing should be a simple pursuit, a diversion from the trappings and trials of modern life, a way to observe and interact with the weather. The Center Harbor 31 was not quite so austere. In the cabin was a galley with a stove and sink, seats with cushions, a chemical toilet on Grace and an enclosed head on Linda.

Below water Grace and Linda were modern, with their altered shapes and increased stability. The cabin interiors tended toward the modern too, but above water Grace in particular looked very reminiscent of Quiet Tune, with its ketch rig, its lovely sheerline, and the scoop of its hollow bow.

1938

E. B. White loved boats from the time he was a boy. His father, Samuel Tilly White, gave him an Old Town canoe for an eleventh birthday present, and it was used during vacations at the Belgrade Lakes in Maine. His older brothers built a 16-foot launch from blueprints and precut frames, and Samuel White hired a boatbuilder from Long Island to help them trim the deck, fit the coamings, and caulk the seams. They named the boat Jessie, after their mother, and moved it to Maine by train and to the Belgrade Lakes by wagon. In the introduction to his Letters, White wrote of how "we would all crowd into her, nestling together in the tiny cockpit like barn swallows in their nest, and cross the pond in all kinds of weather."

After he left a job at an advertising agency and during the summer before he began writing at The New Yorker, E. B. White bought a 20-foot catboat, naming it Pequod. It had "accommodations for one, a simple gaff rig, a marvelous compactness," he wrote in a "Notes and Comment" section of The New Yorker. He used it to make trips along the Long Island shore, "a remote and lotusscented land," usually going alone. He preferred sailing alone.

He married Katharine Sergeant Angell, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, in 1929. Divorced, with two children from a previous marriage, she gave birth to a third child, Joel McCoun White, on December 21, 1930. E. B. White was born on a lucky day — his son was born on the solstice, the day that symbolizes the beginning of life. The birth was a difficult cesarean, and at one point, when it was thought that Katharine might die, a nurse whispered in her ear, "Do you want to say a little prayer, dearie?" "Certainly not," she answered.

On New Year's Eve, Katharine and Joel White were still in the hospital. Speaking through the persona of his dog, E.B. wrote in a letter:

Dear Joe:

Am taking this opportunity to say Happy New Year, although I must say you saw very little of the old year and presumably are in no position to judge whether things are getting better or worse...I walked around the block with White just before he went to the hospital with Mrs. White so you could be born, and we saw your star being boisted into place on the Christmas tree in front of the Washington Arch — an electric star to be sure, but that's what you're up against these days, and it is not a bad star, Joe, as stars go.

He also began writing poems to his son, some of which would appear in the collection The Fox of Peapack, published in 1938. "Apostrophe to a Pram Rider," a song of advice, included the lines:

Some day when I'm out of sight,

Travel far but travel light!

Stalk the turtle on the log,

Watch the heron spear the frog,

Find the things you only find,

When you leave your bag behind;

Raise the sail your old man furled,

Hang your hat upon the world!...

Thank the God you've always doubted,

For the gifts you've never flouted;

...Joe, my tangible creation,

Happy in perambulation,

Work no harder than you have to.

Do you get me?

In "The Cornfield" the author takes a walk, and speaks of the inspiration his son gives him:

...My son, too young and wise to speak,

Clung with one hand to my cheek,

While in his head were slowly born,Important mysteries of the corn.

And being present at the birth

Of my child's wonderment at earth,

I felt my own life stir again

By the still graveyard of the grain.

In "Complicated Thoughts About a Small Son," another of the Fox of Peapack poems, he again speaks of inspiration and wonder, but also of death, and another theme he would continue to explore, the transposition of generations, the presence of the father in the son.

In you, in you I see myself,

Or what I like to think is me:

You are the man, the little man

I've never had the time to be.

In you I read the crystal line

I'll never get around to writing;

In you I taste the only wine

That makes the world at all exciting;

And that, to give you breath and blood

Was trick beyond my simple scope,

Is everything I know of good

And everything I see of hope.

And since, to write in blood and breath

Was fairer than my fairest dream,

The manuscript I leave for death

Is you, who supplied its theme.

In 1935 when Joel was four, E. B. White bought a 30-foot cutter named Astrid. One of Joel's earliest memories was of seeing the boat near a dock at City Island, New York. White sailed Astrid to Maine, where he and Katharine had bought a house and barn on Blue Hill Bay in North Brooklin. There in the summers on Astrid they took short sails and went mackerel fishing.

In 1938 they took up year-round residence in Maine. E. B. White would later call the move "impulsive and irresponsible" because he wasn't sure how he'd make money, or how it would be for his son to leave a

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First Chapter

Chapter One: Launchings June 1996

It's a good day for sailing, at Center Harbor in Brooklin, Maine. The sky is clear and the temperature has risen through the fifties, and there's just enough of a breeze, gentle on the land and slightly stiff over the water. At Brooklin Boat Yard it's a launching day, and among those gathered at the yard -- the boatbuilders, those coming to watch the launch, those here to sail the new boats -- there are many shades of anticipation, concern, and excitement. Launching days are big events, after all, a time when the work of the year is revealed and the dreams of the owners hopefully come true.

Two boats are sitting in the yard, up on jackstands, one behind the other. They seem suspended in motion, like stilled thoughts, some element of gravity missing just now (water) and some aspect of time (forward movement). The boatbuilders hurry about, climbing up and down ladders, moving to and from the shop, rigging lines and bending on sails, thirty feet from the dock. There's a huge mechanical contraption standing nearby, the Travellift, soon to pick the boats up in slings and set them into the water, once the high tide has come.

The boats are of a new design called the Center Harbor 31. They are beautiful to look at. The curved lines that run along the surface and toward the bow are instinctively pleasing, comfortable to rest the eye upon. At the bows of both boats are wreathsdressed in ribbons and flowers, wearing lustrous white, with the lovely lines, these two Center Harbor 31s, called Grace and Linda, could seem like two beautiful schoolgirls off to the prom.

They are the product of thedesign work of Joel White, who began his career as a boatbuilder forty years before, constructing wooden lobster boats with an older boatbuilder. He bought the yard, built many more boats, and as of late has been creating a style of design that has become his own, one that he's become famous for -- boats simple of line yet sound in engineering, traditional above water and modern below.

Steve White, Joel's son, runs the yard now, and through the morning organizes the work on Grace and Linda. He also spends some time rigging, the work he enjoys most. Suspended on a bosun's chair from a hoist on the Travel-lift, he goes about attaching the roller furling jib unit to the mast. Nearby is Bob Stephens, project foreman for the two boats, helping to get the sails on.

The owner of Grace, whose name is Frank Henry, was by early this morning to check on the progress. He and his wife have a summer home in Brooklin. Frank Henry had come up to the yard from New Hampshire several times over the winter to see the progress of the construction and to talk to the boatbuilders -- he'd been surprised that the crew had been willing to take time out to talk to him, even though the pressure was on to finish by the launch date. In the fall when they were still in the planning stages, Henry had been in Brooklin to confer with Joel White on the design. He had built Grace in fact, in order to have the experience of participating in the development of a new boat. Grace is the result of that effort and for Frank Henry this is a satisfying day. His children and grandchildren will be at the launching, and his wife, Grace Henry.

Previously the Henrys had owned a 42-foot racing yawl, with eight berths, a charcoal stove, and a supply of hot water. They had raced to Bermuda, cruised the Great Lakes, and sailed to New Brunswick, and the boat was the vehicle of many family memories, but after the Henrys' children grew up and got their own families and boats, the 42-foot racing yawl seemed much too big. One afternoon when they were sailing in Eggemoggin Reach the Henrys came upon a red-colored daysailer with beautiful lines-Joel White's personal boat, Ellisha, a fiberglass model called the Bridges Point 24 that Joel designed for a local boatbuilder. When Grace Henry saw Ellisha she said, "Now that's more like it."

Frank Henry sailed a Bridges Point 24, and he considered buying one. But Henry wanted something more in a boat, and he wanted an experience in designing it. After talking with Joel White he looked through books about boats and yachting. In Sensible Cruising Designs, by L. Francis Herreshoff, he came across a 29' 6" daysailer called Quiet Tune, one of Herreshoff's "lifestyle boats," based on a simple approach to sailing. Quiet Tune, built in Maine in 1945, was designed for short cruises for two people. It was set up with a ketch rig-with two masts, a mainmast ahead of the cabin and a smaller mizzen mast stepped just forward of the tiller. Quiet Tune appealed to Frank Henry. He liked the simplicity of the boat, and its size, and he liked the ketch rig because of the many sail combinations. They would allow him to make a lot of adjustments, to pull a lot of strings, as it's said, yet the boat would also be small enough for him to sail alone.

Joel White drew a preliminary sail plan based on the lines of Quiet Tune. He tried to convince Frank Henry to build the boat as a sloop, but Henry wanted a ketch rig, and so Joel eventually devised a way of incorporating a mizzen and its rigging without too much awkwardness. Henry liked the looks of the sail plan and lines drawing, so they moved on to more detailed ones. They faxed comments and ideas to each other. As the two interacted, a new boat grew out of Quiet Tune, and eventually the names on the drawings changed to the Center Harbor 31 and Grace. Henry, who had studied engineering in college before going to law school, enjoyed both the technical exchanges and the creative part of the process, the dreaming up of a boat that met both his and his wife's needs.

But before he signed a construction contract he made a condition that the yard must find a second client, since building two boats would substantially cut the costs. That second client was Alan Stern. He had arrived in Brooklin the night before with his son, Brian. They'd just come from Brian's college graduation, and planned to sail their boat back to Connecticut. Stern had built several boats, sailing them primarily on Long Island Sound. When he called Joel in the fall and heard about the Center Harbor 31 project, he soon signed on. But Stern didn't want a ketch rig. He wanted a sloop, with its bigger mainsail, so as to better utilize the light airs of Long Island Sound. Stern also wanted an enclosed head and a self-balling cockpit, and he wanted to be able to fly a big spinnaker. So Joel drew a boat with a deeper ballast keel, and slightly more freeboard, and a bow with more forward overhang. Stern named it Linda, after his wife.

Stern was pleased with the looks of Linda. He liked the big cockpit with the eight-foot seats of sculpted teak, and he liked the way that the above-water appearance of a boat of forty to fifty years ago matched with the modern below-water appearance. Stern felt that with Linda, he had contributed to the development of the Center Harbor 31 in its sloop version.


The people from the General Store arrive at the yard, and set up a buffet table. Others come from the town. There's Doug Hylan, who runs a boatyard down the road, Benjamin River Marine, and who used to work for Joel White. There's Maynard Bray, who has also worked here, over the years, who is an old friend of Joel's, and who like Joel has written technical pieces and reviews of boat designs for WoodenBoat magazine. And Jon Wilson, the founding editor of WoodenBoat. There are the families of the boatbuilders. The cars are parked in the lot by the shop, and along the road up the hill from the harbor.

Amid the preparations and the gathering of the crowd, Joel White arrives. He's walking with crutches, and his wife, Allene, is with him. This is Joel's first time at the yard since undergoing an operation to have a section of his lung removed in Boston a few weeks ago. He's been dealing with lung cancer for the past six months, and he's been using crutches since undergoing a bone graft in his leg, also the result of cancer. He's bald from chemotherapy, wearing a visor cap, and moving gingerly, but Joel is cheerful. There's warmth and curiosity in his eyes. He's a handsome man, grown from the handsome boatbuilder of twenty years ago, and the handsome boy who moved here with his parents, E. B. White and Katharine S. White, sixty years ago.

They take a seat on some planking ahead of Grace, and soon people start coming up to say hello. One friend, named Bill Mayher, stands a few feet away and asks, with a deep look, "So, how are you doing?"

"Pretty good," Joel says.

Then another friend comes up, looking concerned, even a bit afraid.

"How are you?"

"Good," Joel says. He smiles, says he'd been to "Thoracic Park," that he'd asked the doctor if he knew the difference between a "lobeotomy" and a "lobotomy," and that the doctor had said it was just a matter of a different spelling. He laughs a bit shyly.

Of course there's a deep affection for Joel among these people, his friends, those he's sailed with, people he's employed and taught about boatbuilding or boat design. Many feel they've been touched by him in some way. Joel is described as brother, father, friend by them. He's someone who creates beautiful boats in a place where people appreciate beautiful boats.

"How are you feeling?" someone else asks.

"Pretty good," Joel says, smiling, glancing away.

I've known Joel White since January, when I toured the coast of Maine looking for a boatyard where I could watch the construction of a wooden boat. When we met, Joel had just found out that he had cancer, but he didn't say anything about it. He showed me some of the projects at the yard. The hulls of Grace and Linda were being planked then, and so was a Buzzards Bay 25, another of Joel's traditional but modern renditions, in this case a Nathanael Herreshoff boat. We looked in on Easterner, a 12-Meter racing sloop built in the late 1950s and once a candidate for the America's Cup, undergoin g a thorough rebuilding of the hull. Joel drove me to other boatyards in Brooklin, to Eric Dow's shop, where they were building an Araminta, an L. Francis Herreshoff design from the era of Quiet Tune, and to Doug Hylan's shop, where he and his crew were putting new frames, or ribs, in an old sardine carrier being restored and converted into a yacht. He took me to junior Day's shop, where that seventy-five-year-old boatbuilder was shaping out the keel for a 24-foot lobster boat. Joel and I got sandwiches at the General Store and stopped to have lunch in the parking lot of his yard, where it was snowing lightly, and we talked about nature -- I told him about when I'd trained dolphins, and when I let a giant sea turtle go in Nantucket Sound, and Joel told me about how on another snowy day, the kind of storm with big flakes, he'd seen an eagle soar down near the windows of his design studio.

And we also talked about writing, and about his dad. I'd been teaching journalism and writing for several years as a college lecturer, and I said that I'd used E. B. White's Elements of Style in courses. When I quoted from it, or rather misquoted, saying one of the rules as "Cut unnecessary words," Joel corrected me, saying, "Omit unnecessary words." He told me his dad said that Professor Strunk omitted so many words he was left to repeat himself: "Omit unnecessary words, omit unnecessary words, omit unnecessary words!" Joel said with a little laugh. It was such a pleasure to talk about both boats and writing. At the end of this visit, while I stood in Joel's office, a third-floor studio with a spectacular view of the harbor, I asked him if he was the boy in E. B. White's essay "Once More to the Lake," as tender a look of a father to a son as I'd ever read. Joel said he was, and then looked down so that the visor of his hat covered his eyes.

After that day, I was also someone who'd been given something by Joel, through the mere pleasant experience of talking about boats and writing. For a good day can be an aesthetic experience in itself.

Now at the launching, in between the greetings, Joel and I talk again. The yard has come a long way from the time he'd taken it over, thirty-five years ago. Since Steve had begun running the yard during the 1980s, business had increased by three or four times. Steve had added on, and bought the Travel-lift, for $80,000 -- "Something I would have had a lot of trouble doing," Joel says.

Steve had taken over at the right time. "I've been very lucky in my life," Joel says, "that things have come along at the right time."

This seems a bit peculiar, for someone to say how lucky he's been, just after having a section of his lung removed. But the remark struck a chord too. I had read that E. B. White also thought of himself as lucky and believed in his luck, even pointing to the date of his birthday, July 11, 7/11, as a symbol for it. Once when asked what a writer needed to be successful he had said, "Be lucky."

Grace is in the slings of the Travel-lift, her stern toward the water, her bow pointed at the crowd, the ribbons streaming. Frank and Grace Henry walk over and stand under the bow, and their family gathers nearby. Frank Henry thanks the crew, and points out Bob Stephens, whom he'd known at another yard in southern Maine. Bob had made the project all the more enjoyable, Henry says. He thanks Joel for the design and for the experience of working with him. "Grace will be staying right here in Center Harbor," Henry says, "where everyone can see her."

Then Grace Henry speaks. She tells about being on their yawl and coming upon Ellisha. She says she saw the Center Harbor 31 when they were building it, "when it was on its belly." It had looked awfully big then, she says, and they told her it would look smaller in the water, but still she's not sure. Grace Henry takes a slip of paper from her pocket and reads it:

"May she bring pleasure to her captain and crew,
May she be well found and fast,
May she be the envy of all,
I name her Grace."

She swings a bottle of champagne at the stem, and swings again. Cheers go up, hands are raised in applause. Cameras are held high. The Travel-lift starts up with a cloud of smoke, and beeps its way down the tracks of the dock. Grace is then lowered gently into the water, like a nurse setting a baby into a bed. The slings go slack, the boat is floating, and there are more cheers. Grace turns and motors off into the harbor, and soon the sails are rising up the mast.

Linda is next. More people come up to see Joel. Allene is next to him. They met when Joel was in college, at MIT, she says. She'd been studying journalism, and now writes food columns for newspapers in Bangor and Portland. Allene had in the early years worked at the yard, keeping the books. She says that when they first put a phone in, she spent a lot of time looking for him -- "It's really easy to get lost in a boatyard." But Allene says she doesn't know much about boats, that she stays away from them. Her boys are into boats, with Steve running the yard and John working as a fisherman. Allene is more interested in literary things, as is her daughter Martha, a writer -- though Martha is also married to a man who owns a boatyard.

"It must have been nice to see Joel's career develop," I say.

"He was good from the beginning," she says.

When the Travel-lift positions Linda by the dock, Alan Stern and Brian Stern stand under the bow. They're a small group, after the Henrys. And Alan Stern's day is tempered with frustration because the jib roller isn't working, and they won't be sailing the boat very far. Stern says he hadn't known there would be this kind of celebration at the launching. But he too thanks the crew, and Joel, and finally says, "This is the most beautiful boat I've ever seen in my life."

There's no bottle breaking this time, only the sound of the Travel-lift starting up again. Linda swings down the dock and into the water. They motor over to the main dock and continue loading the sails. Eventually Linda heads out, but only under a mainsail, and it's a haphazard ride.

Grace slides through the harbor on repeated runs. The Henrys sail it, and the Henry's children sail it, and so do various crew members, deftly turning and pulling up to the dock. There are cameras going off, shouts of praise.

At the shop, people line up for the buffet and then sit out by the seawall to watch. Joel makes his way down the dock and the ramp. Leaning on his crutches, he looks at Grace sail by. One of those who'd been sailing on Grace goes up to him and says, "Those are beautiful boats!"

"Not too bad," Joel says. A few moments later someone else turns to him and says, "That's an incredible boat!"

"It's a nice boat," Joel says.

You had to wonder about this response too, so muted. We live in an age of fist pumping and selfglorification, of unselfconscious self-promotion. A nice boat?

But then again, this is the son of the man who wrote the story about the spider that wrote "humble" in the web.


Tracing the lineages of boats is like tracing the lineages of songs. It's a matter of influences. A sheer line or bow profile is transposed, and transformed, personalized and made original. In the case of Grace, and before her, Quiet Tune, you could trace a line back to a 14-foot Bermuda racing dinghy called Contest. A fast boat, Contest was also beautiful to look at because of its shape, particularly because of the hollow or reverse curves of the waterlines.

Nathanael Herreshoff, the greatest of boat designers, creator of many America's Cup winners at the Herreshoff Mfg. Co. in Bristol, Rhode Island, may have seen Contest when he spent a winter in Bermuda in 1911. Herreshoff was in his sixties then, and for many years had been designing racing boats with long overhangs (projecting ends) and waterlines with simple outward curves. He took such a boat to Bermuda in 1911, 23 feet long, with low freeboard (hull area above water) and long overhangs, but found he needed something that could fare better in the strong winds and waves.

Herreshoff returned to Bermuda in 1913 with Alerion III, a centerboard boat with lines that may have been a refinement of the shape of Contest. Twenty-six feet long, Alerion had moderate overhangs, higher freeboard, and hollow curves at the bow, lines that are said to be of a transcendent beauty. The design of Alerion was a turning point for Nathanael Herreshoff, who in 1914 created the Buzzards Bay 12 1/2, and in 1916 its enlargement, the 20foot Fish Class sailboats. Enlarging Alerion, Herreshoff in 1914 designed the Newport 29, though it was a full-keeled hull and not a centerboarder. Five Buzzards Bay 25s were launched in 1914. A longer and sleeker version of Alerion, the Buzzards Bay 25 is said to be Nathanael Herreshoff's favorite design, and is in the opinion of some, including Joel White, the most beautiful hull shape ever created. Maynard Bray, writing in WoodenBoat of the Buzzards Bay 25s and of the hollow-bowed boats of Herreshoff, recommends visiting the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol to look at the Buzzards Bay 25 Aria, suggesting that it will be an "almost religious experience...I guarantee she'll take your breath away." Alerion can be seen in the Watercraft collection at Mystic Seaport Museum.

One of Herreshoff's sons, Sidney, used the half-model for Alerion to create the Fishers Island 31. Twelve of those 44-feet-long boats were built between 1927 and 1930. One of them, Cirrus, was still sailing in Center Harbor in the 1990s, and stored at Brooklin Boat Yard.

Another of Herreshoff's sons, L. Francis, worked for the designer W. Starling Burgess during the early 1920s and opened his own design firm in Marblehead, Massachusetts, around 1926. It's been said that while Nathanael Herreshoff was the consummate engineer (studying at MIT, developing steam engines, developing America's Cup yachts), L. Francis was more the artist, and that because he was so concerned with aesthetics he lacked the competitive instinct to build winning racers. As a boy he watched his father drawing and making models -- his bedroom was next door to his father's design room -- and as an adult L. Francis Herreshoff showed both the influence of his father and an originality in his own work. Over a period of forty years he created about 107 designs, ranging from decked canoes to schooners to power cruisers. He is said to have designed some of the most beautiful boats ever created -- the 57-foot ketch Bounty, designed in 1934; the 72-foot ketch Ticonderoga, 1936; the canoe yawl Rozinante, 1956. The younger Herreshoff's trademark was the ketch.

Quiet Tune was 29' 6" long, with hollow waterlines and a transom with a wineglass shape. Designed for Ed Hill, a marine hardware representative from Newcastle, Maine, it was built at Hodgdon Brothers in East Boothbay in 1945. Hill usually sailed it in the late afternoon. (The first Araminta, known as the successor to Quiet Tune, was also built for Ed Hill, by Norman Hodgdon in 1954; also a ketch, and a daysailer, Araminta was three feet longer and had a clipper bow rather than a spoon-shaped bow.) Quiet Tune had several owners, including one in Newport Beach, California, before she was donated to Mystic Seaport Museum in 1993. Araminta also visits there occasionally, and the two boats often lie side by side.

L. Francis's Quiet Tune is said to be a narrower, deeper version of his father's Buzzards Bay 25 design, though with a ketch rig -- and so Alerion is a presence in the boat. But Quiet Tune is also within a family of 20- to 30-foot daysailers built in New England beginning in the mid-1930s. The 20-footers Popeye and Mink were designed by Charles Hodgdon and built at Hodgdon Brothers around 1935. They were followed by the Boothbay 20, designed by Geerd Hendel and built by Hodgdon Brothers and other builders from 1935 until about 1960 (two of these, India and Blue Witch, are housed at Brooklin Boat Yard). In 1936 Starling Burgess designed the Christmas Cove daysaller, also built by Hodgdon Brothers. In 1937 the Yankee One Design appeared, built by Quincy Adams and various other New England yards. In 1938 L. Francis Herreshoff designed the Ben Ma Cree, built by Britt Brothers in West Lynn, Massachusetts. Sonny Hodgdon built Quiet Tune in 1945, in East Boothbay; then, in 1954 he came out with his own design for a daysaller with lines similar to Quiet Tune's and said to be just as beautiful, the Hodgdon 21 -- one of them, Nasket, has been kept at Brooklin Boat Yard for many years.

When Frank Henry chose Quiet Tune as the basis for his own boat, Joel White made an analysis of the design. He found that for her size Quiet Tune had weak sailpower, that she was underrigged. He knew that if he improved the stability of the boat, by changing its underwater configuration, he could increase sail area, and thus the power and speed -- and also perhaps improve looks.

Quiet Tune was built by traditional plank on frame construction, and had a long keel with a rudder attached to the aft end in cross section, the hull was shaped like a wineglass, and even tending toward the Y shape. This was a design that made for a high center of gravity. It also had a rather low "form stability," because of the "slack bilges," the flatness of the sides of the hull just below the waterlinewhich meant that when the boat heeled from the vertical, less volume was being put into the water and stability was decreasing.

Joel White designed an improved hull that was more cupshaped and that had a few inches more beam than Quiet Tune. Instead of a long keel faired into the bottom of the hull, made of heavy timbers and lead, Joel White designed a hull with a fin keelan appendage that looks like a shark's fin, narrow yet deep, and which had a cigar-shaped bulb of lead at the bottom. His design would not be built of oak frames and cedar planks, but instead of light strips of cedar covered with glued layers of thin mahogany veneers running diagonally -- a relatively new construction method called cold molding. Because the hull of the Center Harbor 31 would be lighter than the original Quiet Tune hull, more lead could be added to the bottom of the fin keel, lowering the center of gravity and increasing the stability. Yet the Center Harbor 31 has about the same displacement -- 7,916 pounds -- as Quiet Tune. The changes, and increased stability, enabled him to increase sail area, from 352 to 441 square feet for a gain of 20 percent with Grace. The gain on Linda was even greater. A spade rudder was at the aft end of the waterline on both boats, a device that improved maneuverability.

The lowered vertical center of gravity, to 1.5 feet below the waterline, allowed Joel to make improvements in another area where he found shortcomings, the cockpit. Sailors and passengers in Quiet Tune sat on the floor of a shallow, self-bailing cockpit, in a somewhat awkward position due to the placement of backrests, and it tended to be an uncomfortable ride after a while. But on the Center Harbor 31 the cockpit was made deeper and non-self-bailing, and there were teak seats with a molded shape, and backrests, canted at a comfortable angle, that also served as the coamings, or outer walls, of the cockpit.

Quiet Tune was an austere boat, in keeping with the designer's belief that sailing should be a simple pursuit, a diversion from the trappings and trials of modern life, a way to observe and interact with the weather. The Center Harbor 31 was not quite so austere. In the cabin was a galley with a stove and sink, seats with cushions, a chemical toilet on Grace and an enclosed head on Linda.

Below water Grace and Linda were modern, with their altered shapes and increased stability. The cabin interiors tended toward the modern too, but above water Grace in particular looked very reminiscent of Quiet Tune, with its ketch rig, its lovely sheerline, and the scoop of its hollow bow.


1938

E. B. White loved boats from the time he was a boy. His father, Samuel Tilly White, gave him an Old Town canoe for an eleventh birthday present, and it was used during vacations at the Belgrade Lakes in Maine. His older brothers built a 16-foot launch from blueprints and precut frames, and Samuel White hired a boatbuilder from Long Island to help them trim the deck, fit the coamings, and caulk the seams. They named the boat Jessie, after their mother, and moved it to Maine by train and to the Belgrade Lakes by wagon. In the introduction to his Letters, White wrote of how "we would all crowd into her, nestling together in the tiny cockpit like barn swallows in their nest, and cross the pond in all kinds of weather."

After he left a job at an advertising agency and during the summer before he began writing at The New Yorker, E. B. White bought a 20-foot catboat, naming it Pequod. It had "accommodations for one, a simple gaff rig, a marvelous compactness," he wrote in a "Notes and Comment" section of The New Yorker. He used it to make trips along the Long Island shore, "a remote and lotusscented land," usually going alone. He preferred sailing alone.

He married Katharine Sergeant Angell, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, in 1929. Divorced, with two children from a previous marriage, she gave birth to a third child, Joel McCoun White, on December 21, 1930. E. B. White was born on a lucky day -- his son was born on the solstice, the day that symbolizes the beginning of life. The birth was a difficult cesarean, and at one point, when it was thought that Katharine might die, a nurse whispered in her ear, "Do you want to say a little prayer, dearie?" "Certainly not," she answered.

On New Year's Eve, Katharine and Joel White were still in the hospital. Speaking through the persona of his dog, E.B. wrote in a letter:

Dear Joe:

Am taking this opportunity to say Happy New Year, although I must say you saw very little of the old year and presumably are in no position to judge whether things are getting better or worse...I walked around the block with White just before he went to the hospital with Mrs. White so you could be born, and we saw your star being boisted into place on the Christmas tree in front of the Washington Arch -- an electric star to be sure, but that's what you're up against these days, and it is not a bad star, Joe, as stars go.

He also began writing poems to his son, some of which would appear in the collection The Fox of Peapack, published in 1938. "Apostrophe to a Pram Rider," a song of advice, included the lines:

Some day when I'm out of sight,
Travel far but travel light!
Stalk the turtle on the log,
Watch the heron spear the frog,
Find the things you only find,
When you leave your bag behind;
Raise the sail your old man furled,
Hang your hat upon the world!...
Thank the God you've always doubted,
For the gifts you've never flouted;
...Joe, my tangible creation,
Happy in perambulation,
Work no harder than you have to.
Do you get me?

In "The Cornfield" the author takes a walk, and speaks of the inspiration his son gives him:

...My son, too young and wise to speak,
Clung with one hand to my cheek,
While in his head were slowly born, Important mysteries of the corn.
And being present at the birth
Of my child's wonderment at earth,
I felt my own life stir again
By the still graveyard of the grain.

In "Complicated Thoughts About a Small Son," another of the Fox of Peapack poems, he again speaks of inspiration and wonder, but also of death, and another theme he would continue to explore, the transposition of generations, the presence of the father in the son.

In you, in you I see myself,
Or what I like to think is me:
You are the man, the little man
I've never had the time to be.

In you I read the crystal line
I'll never get around to writing;
In you I taste the only wine
That makes the world at all exciting;

And that, to give you breath and blood
Was trick beyond my simple scope,
Is everything I know of good
And everything I see of hope.

And since, to write in blood and breath
Was fairer than my fairest dream,
The manuscript I leave for death
Is you, who supplied its theme.

In 1935 when Joel was four, E. B. White bought a 30-foot cutter named Astrid. One of Joel's earliest memories was of seeing the boat near a dock at City Island, New York. White sailed Astrid to Maine, where he and Katharine had bought a house and barn on Blue Hill Bay in North Brooklin. There in the summers on Astrid they took short sails and went mackerel fishing.

In 1938 they took up year-round residence in Maine. E. B. White would later call the move "impulsive and irresponsible" because he wasn't sure how he'd make money, or how it would be for his son to leave a private school in Manhattan and go to a tworoom schoolhouse in Maine (though he did think it would expose him to a wider range of people and be a good experience for him), or how his wife would be affected by giving up her job at The New Yorker (according to one writer she had the best job held by any woman in America). But he felt he had to make the move. Though White had found success at The New Yorker, writing "Notes and Comments" and occasional essays, he felt constricted by the short length and the weekly deadline, and the "editorial we" he was required to write in. Feeling that there was much more in him as a writer, E.B. uprooted his family and left New York "in search of the first person singular," as he would later describe it, in order "to write as straight as possible, with no fuzziness."

Some luck came his way when a few days before leaving New York he was offered an assignment from Harper's magazine to write a monthly column. He accepted, and soon after arriving in Brooklin began writing the essays that would later be collected in One Man's Meat. Though largely an account of life in rural Maine, the book would be distributed to servicemen during World War II and would eventually become a Harper's Modern Classic -- "establishing me officially as an American Author," White would write. One Man's Meat is in the lineage of books that came of Thoreau's Walden, a contemplation of nature, and other matters of life, in a setting of retreat. (And Walden was White's favorite book.) Written in the first person, One Man's Meat is an exploration of style -- an open letter one month, a story the next, a journal entry in another. it was written in his characteristically simple style, one that seemed to speak for the common person, and which had a humor that was warm and detached at the same time.

Month to month, over a five-year period, Brooklin is evoked, and animals are certainly brought to life -- the family dog, the chickens, the sheep, the geese, and the barn that would become the setting for Charlotte's Web. And appearing here and there, as incidental character, as point of departure and vehicle of contemplation, is Joel White, seven to twelve years old.

"To my son the American Indian is a living presence, more vivid than Popeye," E. B. White writes in "Children's Books," a November 1938 essay. "To my boy next month isn't December -- it is the Month of the Long Night Moon." ("Close physical contact with the field of literature leads me to the conclusion that it must be a lot of fun to write for children -- reasonably easy work, perhaps even important work.")

In "Sabbath Morn" (February 1939), a look at religion and the radio, the boy enters the living room carrying a police whistle, while the writer listens to a church service. The police whistle blasts, the writer picks up a folder with the rules for a poetry contest, the boy bangs a hammer and then picks up an astronomy book. He asks if they can build a telescope; the writer says not today. The boy forms a bridge with his body and swings a jackknife from his belt. Prayers form in the writer's mind: "Oh God, save the children -- the little boy with the knife, so safe, so safely swinging the knife, with nothing overhead but the wild birds and the planet Mars, safely swinging," while a line from the radio also intrudes upon the writer's mind: "He hath redeemed me and I am his child."

The boy reflects sunlight with the knife blade and asks his father why the radio is on, if it has anything to do with his work. "No," the writer answers. "Well, maybe it has, in a way." The writer says that the boy went through a period when he begged to go to church, and they "felt cheap, withholding God," so they took him twice and he never asked to go again. The church seems unimaginative, "gutted by so many fires." Religion has fallen off, the writer says, but the Lord still lingers. Part of the problem is the radio itself, its "godlike presence." The church "merely holds out the remote promise of salvation: the radio tells you if it's going to rain tomorrow."

In "Education" (March 1939) the boy goes off to the country school, where one teacher instructs the first three grades. He "already regards his teacher as his great friend, and I think tells her a great deal more than he tells us." Previously he'd been to a private school in New York, modern and progressive; during the Christmas pageant, when the angel fainted, the boy had imitated it for weeks ("Some Christmas!" he had said at the time). Now he walks the road into town and spends the day in a two-room building heated with a stove. All had been nervous about the change, but when mother and father picked him up on the road after school, carrying his lunch pail, "and got his laconic report 'All right' in answer to our inquiry about how the day had gone, our relief was vast." The school day seems to go by quicker in the country, the boy says -- "Just like lightning."

In "Walden," a playful and reverent letter to Henry, the writer visits Concord, "doing fifty on Route 62." He wants to see Walden Pond. Henry's account of the place, White writes, is "a document of increasing pertinence; each year it seems to gain a little headway as the world loses ground." As he approaches Concord, the sky "had that same everlasting great look which you will find on Page 144 of the Oxford pocket edition. I could feel the road entering me, through tire, wheel, spring, and cushion; shall I not have intelligence with the earth too?" He checks into an inn, has supper, and then goes to make sure the car is locked: "It's what we all do, Henry. It is called locking the car." The next morning he sets out for the pond, walking down Thoreau Street to Route 126, and then along the edge of the cove where he hears the wonderful sound of "your frog, a full clear troonk, guiding me, still hoarse and solemn, bridging the years," but the frog "soon quit, and I came on a couple of young boys throwing stones at him." He sits and listens, takes note, and walks back to town along the railroad tracks. He ends with a list of expenses -- hotel and meals, canvas shoes, baseball hat and fielder's glove to take back to a boy, an amount ($7.70) that Henry spent on food for eight months. The writer apologizes: "You must remember that the house where you practiced the sort of economy which I respect was haunted only by mice and squirrels. You never had to cope with a shortstop."

In "Second World War" (September 1939) the writer drives the boy to school, sees a cat hunting in a field, and thinks of "how long is the preparation before the son of man can go out and get his dinner. Even when a scholar has the multiplication table at his tongue's end, it is a long way to the first field mouse." In "The Flocks We Watch By Night" (November 1939) father and son walk home after tending to a neighbor's ewe, and the boy asks about the war, whether people have to fight whether they want to or not. "'Some of them,'" the father says. And then, a simple but beautiful descriptive sentence: "When we got near our house we could look down and see the sheep in the pasture below us, grazing spread out, under the stars." The last line follows: " 'I can hardly wait to see the lambs,' said the boy."

In "Farm Paper" (February 1940), at daybreak on a Sunday: "The little boy burst into the bedroom and cried: 'Wake up, you got a lamb!'" Out they go to the barn, to see a lamb that lives only through the morning: "one of the briefest and most popular visitors we ever had...There is something about a lamb you don't get over in a hurry."

In "The Wave of the Future" (December 1940), an essay on the war, White begins with an account of building a small boat named Flounder, which would be Joel's first boat. The writer buys cotton wicking, borrows caulking tools, and asks a neighbor how to build a boat. He planes cedar in the shop, with the stove going, and says that he is "perfectly happy doing anything of this sort and would rather construct something than do any other sort of work." In "A Winter Diary" (January 1941) White spends the day after a snowstorm "planking the scow I am building. Am working from The American Boys Handy Book, after a pardonable delay of thirty years."

In "Songbirds" (April 1942) White tends to a sick lamb and also tries to "help a scholar with his grammar." When he can't think of a pronoun used with conjunctive force or an adjectival complement the scholar becomes annoyed. "You really don't know anything about grammar, do you?" he says. "No, I don't," the writer says, "with only a trace of regret."

If Joel White is an incidental presence in some of the essays, he is the subject, in conjunction with his father, in "Once More to the Lake." And if sometimes treated with casual humor in other places, here the son is regarded with seriousness and tenderness.

White returns to the Belgrade Lakes, the place of his boyhood vacations, taking along Joel, "who had seen lily pads only from train windows." White wonders how time has changed the place. He remembers the early mornings when he got up to slip away in the canoe, and realizes things are nearly the same when on the first morning,, he hears the boy "sneak quietly out and go off along the shore in a boat." White begins to see himself in the boy, and to even feel the illusion he is the boy, "and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father." The sensation persists. He finds himself saying his father's words. "The years were a mirage and there had been no years." When they take a boat on the lake to go fishing, he looks at the boy watching the water, and sees his own hands holding the pole. It makes him feel dizzy, and unsure which pole he's holding.

But these are happy memories too. Father and son swim, eat lunch at the farmhouse, and White looks back. "It seemed to me, as I kept remembering all this, that those times and those summers had been infinitely precious and worth saving." The only objectionable thing is the noisy outboard motor, though Joel loves it -- "his great desire was to achieve single-handed mastery over it, and authority, and he soon learned the trick of choking it a little (but not too much), and the adjustment of the needle valve." The writer remembers the old one-cylinder Palmer engine, the old motorboat that his brothers built.

The week goes well, but in the old setting the feeling of collapsed time continues: "Everywhere we went I had trouble making out which was I, the one walking at my side, the one walking in my pants." One afternoon a thunderstorm comes, and that too is familiar. The rain falls, campers run into the lake to swim, and the boy says he's going in too. The writer has no thought of going in, but he watches his son, "his hard little body, skinny and bare," and "saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment." The next and final line of the essay is: "As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death."

In that line time races apart, with mortality left in its wake. It's a familiar concern, found in the poems from The Fox of Peapack but rendered more fully in this essay -- which also might be considered the fulfillment of the attempt of the writer to find his voice. One can look at "Once More to the Lake," and at "Complicated Thoughts About a Small Son," and find a kind of literary beauty in the oldest of themes, love and death combined. This, and a confirmation of the place of the son in the heart of the writer.

"Once More to the Lake" appeared in August 1941. Thirteen years later, in 1954, the year of the 100th anniversary of E. B. White's father's birth as well as the year of his grandson Joel Steven White's birth, E. B. White wrote a letter to his brother. He had broken a toe and was using a cane, which gave him the sensation again that "I not only looked like Father, I felt like Father." He wrote that he often wondered "not only about what I received from Father but about what I handed along to Joe. Pop was not only conservative (in a rather sensible and largespirited way) but he was tidy in large and small ways, and I think those are the traits that found their way into the second generation. I can see it in my work. I don't always like it, but I can usually see it. I don't know whether a passionate love of the natural world can be transmitted or not, but like the love of beauty it is a thing one likes to associate with the scheme of inheritance."

The year 1954 was also the 100th anniversary of the publication of Walden, and E. B. White wrote an essay called "A Slight Sound at Evening." He wrote that the book should be given as a diploma to graduating seniors: "Even if some senior were to take it literally and start felling trees, there could be worse mishaps: the ax is older than the dictaphone, and it Is just as well to see what kind of chips he leaves before listening to the sound of his own voice. Walden is a "collection of certified sentences," some "as indestructible as they are errant," and he quoted one of the most certified sentences of all: "I learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." That was a sentence, E. B. White would say, that had "the power to resuscitate the youth drowning in the sea of doubt."Walden, he would say, was Thoreau's "acknowledgment of the gift of life." The same could be said of One Man's Meat.

Nearly thirty years later E. B. White wrote a letter to Jon Wilson, who had written an article about Joel and wooden boats. The little scow Flounder, White told Wilson, had provided Joel with his first solo experience on the water. "When she glided into the frog pond with thole pins ready and Joe dancing around, it was my finest hour." The "boat that launched a thousand ships" was still down at his shore, though rotting now. He wrote that it was a great satisfaction to have watched Joel "work his way into the big time-which is excellence, no matter what the product is," and that he'd forgotten he told Joel that "the big thing was to enjoy what you do. It never seemed to me that he paid much attention to anything I told him, but if he listened to that one, I feel good about it."

Copyright © 2000 by Simon & Schuster

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