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Wooden Boats: In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard

Wooden Boats: In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard

3.8 8
by Michael Ruhlman

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There are fewer than 10,000 wooden boats in America, but the circulation of WoodenBoat magazine exceeds 180,000. What is it about these boats that has captured the popular imagination? With his "lively blend of reportage [and] reflection" (Los Angeles Times), Michael Ruhlman sets off for a renowned boatyard in Martha's Vineyard to follow the


There are fewer than 10,000 wooden boats in America, but the circulation of WoodenBoat magazine exceeds 180,000. What is it about these boats that has captured the popular imagination? With his "lively blend of reportage [and] reflection" (Los Angeles Times), Michael Ruhlman sets off for a renowned boatyard in Martha's Vineyard to follow the construction of two boats-Rebecca, a 60-foot modern pleasure schooner, and Elisa Lee, a 32-foot powerboat. Filled with exquisite details and stories of the sea, this exciting exploration of a nearly forgotten craft and the colorful personalities involved will enthrall wooden boat owners as well as craftspeople of every stripe, nature enthusiasts, and fans of compelling nonfiction.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Wooden Boats describes in loving detail how these vessels are made. . . . Mr. Ruhlman consistently comes through with touching lyricism." —The Wall Street Journal

"Ruhlman's deft blending of boatbuilding description and seagoing lore will satisfy even the fussiest of wooden-boat enthusiasts." —WoodenBoat magazine

To love wooden boats, you don't have to own one. In fact, although these ribbed, handcrafted vessels comprise only 1 percent of American ships afloat, a magazine devoted to them outsells all but two other boating periodicals. Perhaps Mark Ruhlman, the author of the well-received The Soul of a Chef, might be the ideal chronicler of the meticulous craftsmanship of wooden boats. His own writings about satisfying specialties have been compared to those of John McPhee. In this graceful book, he documents the construction of two wooden boats: one, an ambitious sailing yacht; the other, a motorboat modeled on the lake racers of the 1940s and '50s.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ruhlman (The Soul of a Chef) provides an insightful look at the life and work of legendary master boatbuilders Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon, whose boatyard on Martha's Vineyard is the site of the most innovative work happening today. Ruhlman tells the men's stories through the boats that they construct, so a long chapter on building the 65-foot-long schooner Rebecca for a newly boat-struck buyer turns into an exploration of the unique connection between the rich people who buy boats and the working-class people who make them, as well as the slow and detailed work that goes into building a boat by hand. Ruhlman's discovery of the "extraordinary integrity" of Benjamin and Gannon's work, as well as "a parallel integrity in these boatwrights' lives," becomes "urgently important" to him "because this work and this kind of person [are] vanishing from our midst." Ruhlman is "not afraid to claim that the wooden boat is both ancient and great, that it connects us to the life that has gone before and that it's fully worthy of a life engaged in its construction." His ability to simply tell the boatbuilders story, making connections between boats and life, gives this sharply observed book its pleasures. (May) Forecast: Ruhlman, who has written extensively for the New York Times, should garner some attention, especially given the acclaim of his previous book and his author tour. The book's attention to manual labor, craft and the lives of men should interest readers of the more intelligent men's magazines. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Ruhlman's (The Soul of a Chef, not reviewed) promising story of attending the construction of two sublime wooden boats falls short in so many areas that it feels woefully out of plumb. Ruhlman has all the ingredients for a great tale: an ancient and honored craft perpetuated by a company of rascally artisans, a slew of absorbing satellite stories to broaden and deepen the character of both boats and boat-builders, and a construction process that has an intuitive, organic sense to it. The Martha's Vineyard boatyard of Gannon and Benjamin, for whom it is wood or the highway, is the setting for this chronicle of building a 60-foot schooner for an entrepreneur and a 32-foot powerboat for the singer Jonathan Edwards. Much of the spirit of the Gannon and Benjamin shop comes through here—the dedication, the vision. There are generously painted portraits of the boat workers, and there are terrific sections on gathering silverballi and angelique in the Suriname rainforest. But Ruhlman loves the sound of his voice too much, and his imagery charges about unreined: in one breath he tells readers that the victims of being boatstruck show "no easily discernable signs of the illness," then "you can see it." Or that artisinal wooden boat building is "a long study of a five-thousand-year-old practice" then an act of the "collective unconscious," and we're not talking about the play of opposing forces. He also comes up with nonsensical metaphors: "Ross [Gannon] collects heavy antique machinery the way other people collect Faberge eggs": Does this mean only on rare occasions? But perhaps the weakest part of the book is that Ruhlman is not particularly able in describing woodworkingtechnique. Visualizing the boat-building process is critical to sustaining the book's atmosphere, and it simply never gathers in the mind's eye. Approached as a salvage operation, there are numerous worthy features in this book, but there are too many gaps in planking for it to float on its own. Author tour

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Penguin Publishing Group
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5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.71(d)
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

Boatstruck: there could be no other explanation for the impulse toward Rebecca. The man was boatstruck. Some people become boat smart; others are simply struck. Something happens to certain men when they see a boat, and they become crazy. A man, or the occasional woman (women seem to be less frequently disturbed), who is boatstruck shows no easily discernible outward signs of the illness. On the contrary, the boatstruck look more than reasonable. They are successful people. They are not easily carried away. They have accumulated if not substantial wealth, then at least significant disposable income. They are smart, cool, self-possessed, and they are pretty good on the water. They brim with a free and adventurous spirit. You tend to like these people-they can be inexplicably magnetic. But a man who is boatstruck often has an unrealistic understanding of his cash situation. And cash is the fulcrum on which a boatstruck life teeters between bliss and ruin. Boats require plenty of cash.

And yet there is something exquisite about the condition of being boatstruck. An ecstasy runs through it, compulsive and contagious. You can see it, sense this delight, even if you happen to be free of the affliction yourself or don't sail or even if you don't particularly care for boats. Sometimes a beautiful boat is simply worthy of devotion, reverence, and awe, and no one doubts it. A beautiful boat is as obviously invaluable as a Leonardo sketch or Monet's water lilies. The boat can be a magnificent structure. And the boat most likely to be deemed so is surely the wooden boat. Many groan at the thought of such boats, recalling some youthful foolishness that resulted in much maintenanceand repair and not a single second of actual sailing. That's a wooden boat, all right, but that boat is not magnificent. We are not talking here about the wreck, that piece of shit on the farthest mooring, built in the fifties and uncared for almost from its launching; we are talking rather about the well-built, meticulously crafted, lovingly cared for, continually sailed, plank-on-frame, gaff-rigged vessel. That boat inspires. It can be 20 feet or 80, and it is the same thing-it's a form that you know at your core. The perfect wooden sailboat. Such a product of man's mind and labor-a series of pieces of wood bent around frames-is worthy of even the most peculiar fetish of man, of adoration, is worthy perhaps even of lunacy.

In 1995, in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, a boatstruck man answered a question posed by a boatbuilder. It may have been one of the most common of all dialogues between the boatstruck and the boatbuilder, but on this occasion something substantial would be born from it, born of all this, all that wooden boats were and are, all that they attract-this adoration, this reverence, this innate sense of truth, this want, this insanity, this intelligence, this capacity to imagine beauty and draw its design so that it will move through water with grace and power, be drawn through it by wind-a boat born ultimately of a deep knowledge of how wood on water works, knowledge earned over many thousands of miles on the earth's oceans, many decades building boats, and long study of a five-thousand-year-old practice, and born, too, of a sense of all that the boat might be, simply for the boat: what might be. Out of all this came Rebecca. It floated out of a collective unconscious like a ghost ship materializing out of a fog.

It was to be the last great plank-on-frame schooner built in the twentieth century: Rebecca. This wooden yacht may have been sparked by a particular form of ecstatic insanity-that of a man boatstruck-but the thing itself was as solid and durable as the hardwoods that would compose its backbone, a deep-water sailing vessel powerful enough to cruise any of the earth's oceans, a beautiful boat, a mighty ship, one that would exalt all who beheld her. If she could be built.

Rebecca's precarious history began, ironically, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida-one of the plastic-boat meccas of the world, with its blacktop, heat, traffic, and fiberglass-where a boat called Jane Dore III was tied up. She had been purchased by a man in Massachusetts. The seller in Fort Lauderdale had called a friend, one Ross Gannon, and asked him to deliver Jane Dore III, sail her up to her new owner, who lived on Cape Cod. It was to be a routine delivery for a routine owner.

Ross Gannon could hardly have imagined the course of events that he was setting in motion when he, Suzy Zell, their son, Lyle, and two other crew flew down to Fort Lauderdale to sail the 53-foot center-cockpit yawl to Vineyard Haven Harbor on behalf of the buyer, Daniel Adams. Boat deliveries are always dicey-you never know what you're in for, particularly when it comes to wooden boats, which, when they're being sold, are invariably old and tired and leak like hell. That's why they're being sold! No one sells a beautiful wooden boat in excellent condition that's great to sail-he'd be a fool. Boats like that, people keep: that's why they have them in the first place. What happens is that someone neglects a great wooden boat for many years, and when it gets to be too expensive and too much of a headache to repair, then he sells it. He simply waits for a boatstruck man to come along, and watches as the man signs over a large check without so much as a marine survey, just scratching his name across the check.

A man who is boatstruck does not realize that good used wooden boats are not available, nor can he differentiate between the gorgeous fantasy in his head and the floating piece of rot in front of him: he simply can't see it. Which helps to explain why Dan Adams would have bought a boat without a marine survey-a matter of paying someone knowledgeable a small fee to look the boat over for any significant problems. No, Dan simply saw the boat and wrote out a check for half the price right there, and in May 1995 four crew led by Ross Gannon flew to Fort Lauderdale, spent a week readying the boat for its voyage north, and then set sail.

If you had to deliver a tired wooden sailboat, one that hadn't been surveyed, up the entire East Coast of the United States to Massachusetts, you wouldn't be unhappy to have Ross Gannon aboard. He is an able captain and an ingenious mechanic, and he knows how to get you safely where you need to go. At the time of the delivery, in 1995, Ross was forty-eight; he was strong as a draft horse from his work and had decades of experience in deepwater sailing. Moreover, he could fix absolutely anything-the engine, a hull leak, broken wood, a ripped sail, snapped rigging, a busted tiller. If the electronic GPS (global positioning system) went on the fritz, he could surely fix it, too, but he probably wouldn't, since he doesn't like to rely on electronic gadgets to tell him where he is; they fail too often to be relied on. Eighteenth-century navigation techniques work fine, are more reliable, and are more interesting besides. Before he and his partner started their boatyard, the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, Ross tore down old, unwanted houses on the Vineyard and used the material to build beautiful brand-new ones. He was and is an amazing scavenger. If he needs an expensive tool, he usually finds a broken version that someone has thrown away and fixes it according to the job he needs it for. Sometimes he simply builds the tool himself with a blowtorch and scraps from around the yard. He used to move whole houses hundreds of feet when beach erosion threatened them. It was the work of a morning for Ross to jack up an entire house so he could put in a foundation. Ask anybody at the boatyard: there isn't anything Ross can't do when it comes to fixing, building, or moving, not anything.

Three weeks after leaving Fort Lauderdale, Jane Dore III reached Vineyard Haven Harbor, its crew safe but sodden (the decks leaked like the devil; foul-weather gear was eventually renamed Jane Dore pajamas). The wind was out of the north, blowing straight in the faceof the harbor, and Jane Dore III came screeching toward the town dock. Ross waved to Nat as he passed Venture, Nat's 37-foot sloop, on her mooring near the breakwater, and Nat smiled and waved back, always happy to see another wooden boat arrive in this harbor that was filling up with wooden boats, their masts of varnished spruce glow-ing in the sun. As Ross approached the town dock, he was forced by the windy conditions and the speed of the boat to throw a line to a stranger for assistance-a big fella in a black leather jacket-and hope that the man would know what to do. He called to him, "Can you tie a bowline?" A bowline, of course, is one of the first sailing knots everyone learns as a kid and may be the most often used knot on a boat. For a sailor, it's like tying his or her shoe. Ross just wanted someone to tie a bowline and throw the line over a piling till he could attend to it.

The man caught the rope and said gravely, "I'm Dan Adams. I can tie a bowline." (Ross smiles today at the recollection, saying, "And I think he did. Maybe on the first try!") The guy tying the bowline was the new owner, the boatstruck man.

The inevitable was soon discovered: Jane Dore III was held together by paint, Bondo, duct tape, and little else. Nat and Ross looked the boat over and gave Dan the news: it would cost about $250,000 for a complete restoration, anything short of which would be a waste of money. But they didn't recommend a complete restoration. For the same price, but probably less, they could get the designs, salvage the ballast, engine, spars, and hardware, and build Dan a new boat. Nat and Ross tried to console Dan by saying, Yes, it'll be expensive, but look at it this way: when we're done, you're gonna have the boat you've always wanted.

After a troubled moment or two, it occurred to Dan that they had a point. Dan Adams had first been boatstruck at the age of five, when his grandfather took him to a dock in Hyannis, on Cape Cod, where a 65-foot Alden was tied up. Since the moment he'd laid eyes on that boat, he said, he had wanted a 65-foot schooner. He would tell you he'd grown up in Boston, attended prestigious Roxbury Latin, an independent boys' school, and studied briefly at the University of Vermont before dropping out to work in politics and, later, movies. But he'd been boatstruck at age five, and after thirty-three years, the condition, untreated, had evidently become quite serious. And so when he heard those words-you're gonna have the boat you've always wanted-Dan stopped, thought, and said, That's not the boat I've always wanted.

Nat Benjamin's deep voice and set teeth combine in a charismatic grin and laughter so natural that he can charm the president, senators, and movie stars as easily as he does the boatyard workers. It's the charm of authenticity-he's a true sailor, a talented builder and craftsman, and you sense it the moment you lay eyes on him. Here is a man to contend with, here is a man you want on your side. What comes with this authenticity is the ability to be terribly convincing when he talks about boats. So when Dan made his statement That's not the boat I've always wanted, Nat asked, What is?

Then Dan uttered a seemingly benign but in fact dangerous, life-altering phrase. He said, "A sixty-five-foot schooner."

"We perked up at that!" Nat would later exclaim, laughing his low, easy laugh, unconcerned at the time that this might be just a little too easy; Dan did show every outward sign of being able to afford this. "Very sensible decision!"

And thus was the seed planted in the boatstruck Dan. Nat and Ross could build him the very boat that had been in his mind since he was a boy. She could now be his, and he'd be able to sail her on any ocean on this earth, an amazing plank-on-frame schooner. She was to be his.

This was a heady commission for Nat Benjamin. As those involved with boats, and certainly all those involved in designing and building boats, will tell you, they're continually thinking about their ideal boat, what it would be, how they would do it. And now, for Nat, an actual commission for exactly this had walked right onto his and Ross's dock.

Nat's favorite boats were always in the 60- to 70-foot range. He now owned, with Ross and another partner, the 63-foot schooner When and If. He and Ross had previously owned a 72-foot yawl named Zorra, which they'd chartered yearly in the Caribbean and Martha's Vineyard. That was the perfect cruising and chartering size, Nat thought. Get much bigger and you needed more manpower and sail-ing experience aboard to handle the boat properly; smaller than that and you began to limit the number of people who could cruise comfortably for extended periods. And you could sail a boat that size anywhere in the world. Dan Adams didn't really need the 65 feet he'd asked for, Nat decided; 60 would do just fine. Nat didn't think Dan had any clear idea of what he really wanted, anyway; he could see the flickery eye and hear the stumbling, vague speech that marked a boatstruck man, and so he himself would decide what would be best for the boat, and therefore for Dan.

More important than the ideal length was the kind of rig Dan wanted: a schooner rig, with two masts, like When and If, as opposed to a sloop (with one mast) or a ketch (two masts, the after mast the shorter of the two) or a yawl (a big mainmast and a tiny mast way back aft, like Zorra).

"When and If," Nat told me, moving in his mind through the schooners he'd known. "Going back many years ago, sailing Malabar X in the Caribbean, a fifty-eight-foot gaff-rigged John Alden schooner-sailed her once, but it was a memorable thing. And I sailed a little Block Island schooner across the Atlantic. I sailed a great deal with a friend in the West Indies, on a forty-foot Tancook schooner-simple, clean, nice sailing boat. The first charter I ever did, I crewed on a schooner called Madrigal out of Essex, Connecticut, a really nice Alden schooner. I was nineteen years old. That was the first one I sailed on, and it was just a wonderful boat.

"So I've always loved the rig. I love how they sail, I love how easy they are to handle. If you take [two boats with] the same hull and you put a sloop rig on one and a schooner rig on the other, the sloop at first seems simpler. A schooner, gosh, you got two jibs, a foresail and a mainsail, and you may be able to put a fisherman or topsail on top of this. But what makes the schooner simpler is that you've got the same amount of sail area to drive this hull, but you can divide it up into four sails, so each sail is so much easier to handle. It's easier on the boat, and it's a much more versatile rig. Leaving a mooring with a sloop, as soon as you put up a mainsail, that boat is trying to go. The mainsail on a schooner, it's farther aft, so you set that, it acts like a weather vane-it doesn't make the boat go, it makes it stand still, right into the wind. If you're anchoring, coming to the anchor, drop your headsails, jog it in, you ease the fore off and strap the main in, she's gonna sit there like a well-trained horse. So even though there are a lot more strings to pull, each sail is smaller, easier to manage.

"There are more things to do. In a sloop, you set the main and the jib up and that's it. That's what you get, and that's OK, but on a schooner, if the wind starts to blow like hell, you can drop the foresail and the jib and go under just the main and the forestaysail. Or you can drop the main and go under fore and forestaysail-there's all sorts of options. And that makes it fun."

When Nat designed a boat, he thought not only about where and how her future owner would sail her but also about how he might sail her, what he'd like to do if he was aboard. "It's fun having a bowsprit," he said, "because it's a great place to sit-you just go out there, climb out, you're away from everyone and you can climb down and put your feet in the water, or you can go up the rig and sit on the spreaders. That's what I like about these boats; you don't just have to sit in the cockpit and talk to people, you can say, 'Excuse me, I gotta go check something,' and, boom, you're up the mast and in another world, and that to me means a lot.

"I just think schooners are more fun to sail. And prettier to look at."

So on that day in 1995, Nat walked the mile and a half from the boatyard to his home on Grove Street-where he and his wife, Pam, have lived since the mid-1970s, for most of that time with their two daughters and now a mongrel named Bella-and sat down at the drawing board in his cramped office, its drawers jammed with drawings, its walls haphazardly covered with framed pictures of boats he'd sailed or built, a few shelves loaded with dusty issues of WoodenBoat and Classic Boat. He had, scattered on his drawing board, numerous "ducks," lead weights with L-shaped pins on them that held down long plastic strips, or splines, and many ships' curves for fairing lines. He taped a piece of vellum to the board, put a mark at one end, and, figuring 3/8 inch per foot, measured 221/2 inches toward the opposite side of the paper, then put a mark there. He then struck the load waterline and made a general guess at the draft, how deep the boat would be beneath the waterline-certainly not more than 9 feet for Rebecca, and probably not less than 8, he figured-81/2 feet.

The width was simple: "Not too wide and not too narrow!" he would explain later. He wanted a beamy boat for stability, comfort,and deck space. "With a boat that has two masts," he reasoned, "you've got a lot of leverage trying to heel it over. So you don't want some skinny, narrow thing. If you do, you have to go way deep with your ballast, and then you've got a quirky, difficult boat." He planned a width of 14 feet or so.

He wanted a powerful bow, and so it would be a little high, and you always want the stern to be lower than the bow-a couple more ticks of his pencil for the bow and stern heights. Above the waterline, on the freeboard, you want enough height so you don't feel like you'll get soaked every time the boat heels a little bit, but not so much that you need a ladder to get in and out of a dinghy.

Now he had the bow height, the stern height, and the lowest part of the freeboard-roughly 4 feet. He set his ducks to hold the batten down at these points and drew a fair curve.

This was how Rebecca, a traditional wooden boat, began to take shape in the summer and fall of 1995. On September 20 Nat finished a working sketch, and by the following February he'd completed the lines drawing, a presentation of the hull from four perspectives. The profile drawing tells you what the boat and the rig will look like; the lines drawing tells you what will make the boat tick.

Rebecca was, Nat says, the easiest boat he's ever drawn.

Two observations by people who know Nat come with enough regularity to make them seem his dominant attributes, at least in other people's eyes. The first is that he is "deeply spiritual," or "very spiritual," though no one is ever able to offer any evidence in support; it's just a sense, but enough people feel it to give the observation credibility. The second is that nothing fazes him. He's unflappable. He is almost always happy, and more: he's at peace. Bernie Holzer, a seasoned seaman and a steamship purser who has known Nat for years, says he's never heard him raise his voice.

Nat is a Christian Scientist, and while he's not orthodox in his adherence to the religion, he says he's learned most from its suggestion that we approach problems from a spiritual rather than a physical or material angle. Pam was raised a Christian Scientist, and while Nat resisted learning about it for years, ultimately, the more he read and thought about it, the more Christian Science dovetailed with ideas and knowledge already ingrained in his thoughts. "I think everyone goes on their own spiritual path in their own way and observes or finds what seems to be suitable," he says. "What seems to work for them. I'm a slow learner, but gradually it became clear to me that this was something to reckon with-there is some truth here, and it's worth pursuing."

Nat is so steady that few things seem to impress him overly, and he's not inclined to overpraise, but neither does he seem to take anything for granted. Perhaps he comes by this honestly. At twenty-one he sailed a small wooden boat, a Block Island schooner, across the Atlantic with a single, inexperienced crew member-a hard forty-one-day crossing with a near sinking, a near death, heavy weather. He made landfall in Newport and within hours called his mom-after six weeks at sea, incommunicado the whole time, since there was no radio on the boat-to tell her that he was all right, they'd made it across the Atlantic. Her first words were "Do you have a summer job yet?" Nat was silent on the line for a moment; then he chuckled.

He smiles now and says, "She put me in my place."

So maybe his incredible steadiness, his even keel, was learned, but it is also linked to that first observation people consistently make about him. His steadiness and his spirituality are connected. He is a man who mainly dwells elsewhere-out on the bowsprit or way up the mainmast on a spreader.

When Nat says that this 60-foot boat was easy to draw, you have to remember that he's not easily impressed, particularly by himself. So in order to understand the actual significance of Rebecca, you've got to pull back from Nat's house on Grove Street and the earthy island of Martha's Vineyard and look well beyond, until the boat can be seen in her proper context.

Not that long ago, sailboats that were made out of wood were not special because of what they were made of-they were usually made of wood. In 1930 you wouldn't have said, "That's a beautiful wooden boat," as you must do today. That would have sounded idiotic back then, like saying, "This is delicious flour bread." But now, in America and the rest of the developed world, almost no boats are made out of wood. Since the 1960s fiberglass has dominated the field of boat construction. Metal has for more than a century been widely used as well, most notably for big boats (though some sailors do enjoy small steel hulls), but beginning in 1942, the year Ray Greene built the world's first large polyester/fiberglass object (a boat, as it happened), and working up to apparently unstoppable and permanent predominance in the 1960s, fiberglass has been the premier material for building boats. It's cheap and light and can be molded into any imaginable shape-perfect qualities for that complex system of curves and reverse curves that comprise a sailboat's hull. And because the glass is shaped using a mold, it's possible to make a lot of boats quickly. Fiberglass also turned out to be a snap to maintain, relative to wood. A wooden hull you have to haul once a year, blast it clean, then sand and paint it to keep the growth and barnacles off. Old wooden boats you're forever repairing: broken ribs, water raining through the deck onto the bunks, seeping inexorably through the cracks in the planking or through punky spots where the iron fastenings have corroded. Fiberglass doesn't leak. Fiberglass doesn't rot.

If you neglect wood, the wood resents it. Fiberglass couldn't care less. Wood is humanities and the arts, fiberglass is science. Wood is emotion, fiberglass is reason.

And yet a few people kept building boats out of wood in the modern 1960s and even in the 1970s-oddballs, back-to-nature hippies, and eccentrics who just happened to like them. Wooden boats often stick around for a long time, and those tired old wooden boats were cheap for impecunious yachties willing to do a whole lot of work on them, willing to spend more time working than sailing, if they were lucky enough to do any sailing at all (often, floating was as far as they got).

But everyone liked the looks of a well-maintained wooden boat-no one who spent time on the water denied that these vessels could be truly beautiful, and there wasn't a boater alive who wasn't openly grateful to those few poor souls, God bless 'em, who couldn't help themselves and owned wooden boats. But that didn't mean you had to own one yourself! No, thanks very much for the offer, but I'll just enjoy the looks of your lovely wooden boat from my no-leak, low-maintenance fiberglass boat! Hee hee hee.

Indeed, an obscure magazine idea, a magazine devoted to wooden boats, became a resounding success precisely because readers didn't have to own wood to love it, admire it, or even dream about it.

No firm numbers are available, but industry experts guess that fewer than 10,000 wooden boats exist in America, not including dinghies, canoes, kayaks, homemade plywood skiffs, and the like; more likely they number in the mid-four-figure range (6,307 boats are listed in the 1999-2000 edition of the Register of Wooden Yachts). There are fewer than 750 boatyards in the country that in some way work with wooden boats. Yet this minuscule industry-several thousand boat owners, roughly 750 shops-generates a subscription base for WoodenBoat of more than 100,000, making it one of the biggest boating magazines out there.

So clearly, plenty of people loved and cared about wooden boats all along, even if they didn't own them, and for others wooden boats were the only kind they could afford and maintain. For these reasons, a few people continued to build them, though in almost immeasurably small numbers, and a few apprentices learned the trade from them even during the wooden boat nadir of the mid-1970s, when fiberglass and plastics were the rage.

But as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, so many things were being made of plastic-it had become so pervasive in industrialized culture-that "plastic" turned into a metaphor for cheapness, impermanence, being fake, phony, imitation, not the real thing. Wood was the opposite. People returned to wood in their furniture, in their children's toys; they yanked up that ridiculous shag carpeting and sanded and varnished the tongue-and-groove oak boards beneath. They returned to a lot of natural things, as could be witnessed in the trend toward organic farming and eating unprocessed foods, for example, or the preference for wearing cotton clothing after the fads of synthetic fabrics. And they bought wooden boats. Contemporary culture was getting a little too fast and-in this great capitalist economy that heaped riches on whoever could sell the same item for the least amount of money-a little too cheap. Furthermore, fiberglass, it turned out, wasn't a miracle material after all. You did have to take care of it. It blistered and cracked; it didn't much like salt water or sun. And if you hit a rock hard enough, or heavy seas pushed you into the shore, that light, inexpensive, easy-to-maintain fiberglass hull could shatter like an eggshell. At sea it bent and buckled and fell apart.

A sailor named Pete Goss recalls such an experience in a 34-foot fiberglass sloop, in a storm in the middle of an Atlantic crossing, in his book Close to the Wind:

Poor old Sarie Marais gave her all for the twenty-four hours that the storm blew. However, it was just too much for her and I suspect we pushed her a bit too hard. First, the structural frames in the bow cracked-to such an extent that the bow section flexed so much that the forehatch kept springing open, flooding the boat with gallons of water. Next, cracks appeared in the deck-first by the chainplates, and eventually running aft along the deck for about six feet. By now the hull was flexing so much that gaps of up to an inch were opening and closing near the bulkheads and we had to be careful where we put our fingers. A large split developed in the hull under the engine and the rudder felt loose. It was a hard storm....

As the trip progressed, Chris and I continued to bail, gradually clearing the boat. Then, to our horror, we discovered the source of the leak now seemed to be in the area around the keel fastenings rather than the forehatch. We feared the damn thing was about to fall off....

The boat was flexing so much by this time that if you sat in the companionway with your elbows resting on either side of the hatch, they would go up and down by about an inch with each flex. Our diet was dictated by whichever cupboard or drawer would open-most were jammed shut by the distortion of the hull. Goss and his companion finally made landfall in Newport, and when they lifted the boat out of the water to check the damage, the keel fell off.

This boat, or any other like her, didn't get fixed. You put a hole in a fiberglass boat, you didn't patch it, you didn't try to save the boat, you just threw her away and got a new one: such boats were disposable. And you never tried to save an old fiberglass boat-what was the point? Broken or old, she was only plastic-dump her. It wasn't like she was a great old wooden boat, a boat with soul.

In the boating world, wooden boats, or at least those wooden boats that were properly cared for, became a kind of symbol of the natural world, of those things that were good and true, an antidote to the crass, cheap, commercial culture all around us and on sale in strip malls and Wal-Marts.

In the 1990s wooden boats likely began to be made in somewhat greater numbers than in the previous two decades, because of the trend toward the natural and because of a new process that, though arguably more than a century old, had only now hit a critical mass in the wooden boat world. Wooden boat builders, thanks to the fiberglass and chemical industries, took advantage of new, highly sophisticated adhesives and applied them to wood in a method called cold-molding. Boatwrights found that by building up thin layers of wood and glue, they could make hulls that were stronger than fiberglass but lighter than traditional wooden boats, which tended to be heavy and slow. The process didn't require huge timbers (which were in increasingly short supply in this country) or heavy machinery. In short, this method of building laminated hulls combined the best qualities of fiberglass (workability, lightness of material, and no leaks) with all the advantages of traditional plank-on-frame construction (durability, beauty, and the sensory pleasures of sailing a wooden vessel-her sound, smell, and feel as she charged through the waves, the solid lap against the hull at anchor, you in your bunk on your way to sleep).

Within the wooden boat world, there was hot debate over whether these new cold-molded boats should be considered wooden at all (the traditionalists dismissed cold-molded hulls as "wood-reinforced plastic"). But the facts were these: one kind of boat was made of wood held together by metal screws and bolts, and the other of wood held together by glue. Both were, in fact, wood. This position was wholly embraced by the arbiter of this world, WoodenBoat magazine.

And so with traditional builders still working, and many boatyards picking up new commissions for cold-molded boats, the wooden boat industry appeared to be in fine health, chronicled bimonthly in the gorgeous, glossy pages of WoodenBoat. There were nonprofit projects here and there for which preservation societies built large wooden boats, often replicas of sailing ships of bygone eras-like Pride of Baltimore, for example, or Amistad, a replica of the slave ship recently launched at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. But over and above this general robust health, three significant projects appeared to give the sense that something more was happening than a little blip of increased activity in the wooden boat world.

In 1997 sixth-generation builder Harold Burnham launched in Essex, Massachusetts, Thomas E. Lannon, a 65-foot schooner commissioned by Tom Ellis for pleasure sailing and chartering. This heavy plank-on-frame vessel, modeled on Essex fishing schooners of the late 1800s, was among the biggest traditional vessels privately built for fun and profit since the advent of fiberglass.

Next, Donald Tofias commissioned two 76-foot, cold-molded racing boats designed by Joel White, one of the preeminent designers in the country (and the son of the celebrated writer who created one of the great fictional yachters in the canon of American lit: Stuart Little, the mouse). These boats were to be built consecutively by White's son, Steve, at the Brooklin Boatyard, and his son-in-law, Taylor Allen, at Rockport Marine, both on the rocky coast of Maine.

Tofias's plan was not to own two sleek wooden racing yachts, but rather to sell them and create a class of huge racing boats that people all over the world would buy and then race in various locales. This latter practice, called one-design racing because it doesn't require the complicated and often controversial handicapping of boats, was all but dead by the time the Great Depression struck, and Tofias argued that it in fact hadn't been done with any large boats since Nat Herreshoff designed and built the New York 50s in 1913. Whether or not this appealing, perhaps hopelessly romantic, and certainly expensive venture (each boat would cost a million to build and sell for twice that) would pan out could not be known for years after the boats' launchings, in the summer and fall of 1998. More boats and plans were in the works; Tofias didn't think small. His goal was to create five classes of boats, ranging from 46 feet to 130.

Whatever the ultimate fate of Tofias's W-Class yacht company, the first two 76-footers would be built, and the remarkable fact of the matter was this: for the first time in nearly a century, a man was investing in wooden racing boats, considering them a commercial, for-profit venture. "We want to build a lot of racing boats over the next ten years!" Tofias proclaimed to the applauding crowd at the launching of the second boat.

And finally, Rebecca. Rebecca combined the most exciting aspects of each of these projects and, in the minds of many, surpassed in ambition and scope any other current construction, or any construction anyone could think of or remember in decades. Thomas E. Lannon was a big, fine schooner, and traditional, but she remained true to her workboat roots; she did not have the exciting design of Rebecca, a deep-ocean yacht, a big schooner rig with a powerful bow that would barrel toward you, looking every bit the mighty boat that she was, and then slip past and disappear with her fine, graceful stern. And she wasn't cold-molded. Many still debated the veracity of the claim that cold-molded boats were wooden boats (at the launching of the secondW-class, White Wings, in Rockport Harbor, Ross Gannon nodded in her direction and said to me, "That's not a wooden boat"). Rebecca was pure and true. Rebecca was a great traditional wooden boat, with traditional lines, the kind of boat that hadn't been built since before World War II and the dawn of fiberglass and the cultural transformation that had opened up yachting to the masses of the middle class (with fiberglass, almost anybody could own a boat). Rebecca was simultaneously a link to the golden past of sailboat construction and a daring, hopeful signal of the future.

Meet the Author

Michael Ruhlman is the author of The Making of a Chef, The Soul of a Chef, and Charcuterie. He has also collaborated with Thomas Keller on two cookbooks, The French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon. Additionally, Ruhlman has written for The New York Times, Gourmet, Saveur, and Food Arts magazine, as well as being featured on the PBS series Cooking Under Fire.

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Wooden Boats: In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Author Ruhlman might be the new Studs Terkel of our time. In his various other books he seached for perfectionists, whether chefs or surgeons. This study is about carpenters, or rather more specifically, the men (and they are almost all men) who make sailboats, the old-fashioned way, out of wood. It might seem a stretch to dedicate a whole book to an obscure topic; after all, after you've met the guys, reviewed what they do, and lard up some stories, what do you have? A fascinating read into people and a trade and circle that we wouldn't otherwise be aware of. The author is not afraid to get down-&-dirty, either with the work and cutting and hammering, or, as his own work of writing demands, with trying to describe all sorts of esoterica about wood, lifting, boat design, the economics of shipbuilding, and he's also not afraid or embarassed to take the next logical step, and point out the 'meaning' of the task, its honesty, beauty, grace. The observation is made that wooden boats are probably as old as humankind, including some of our oldest stories such as the Odyssey or Noah's Ark. Points not mentioned are that Jesus was a carpenter and that Paul was a tent-maker, and we might be free to believe that they probably made boats and sails. This book describes the holiness of work, well done, lovingly, as a source of pride and life.
A_Sloan More than 1 year ago
Essentially Zen and the art of Boatbuilding Ruhlman brings all his skills of observation, description, and writing craft to Wooden Boat. I grew up around sailboats, in fact, the first boat mentioned is the restoration of an Alden Malabar Senior, which is the kind of sailboat my grandfather owned 1957-1968. I really likes this book, as it is not so much about boat construction but about the people within the boat building culture. In a clear and elegant voice, he illustrates that what you make is who you are and vice versa. In this modern age of disposable things, its beautiful to discover people whose dedication to a craft defies the norm.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She smiled. "Not if you dont want me to...." she licked his muzzle. ""We could find a pack together?" She suggested.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I buy a book of this type I would like to know Im going to see picture of beautiful vessels. There was nothing that mentioned this detail. The visual experiance is as important as the information
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Michael does an excellent job in recounting his experience and exposure to this unique nitche and those who are motivated by the elemental persuit of staying in touch with the elements that make up themselves and our universe in its rawist form. To say the least, Michael identifies with the root of the trees that become the subject vessels created by Nat and Ross however their story is more basic than that of pen and paper especially to those of us who have ventured to the sea in small boats. Drawn by the magnetic flux that surrounds us all in an invisible vail and to explore the last great frontier in three deminsions with earth, wind, sky and water. The basics of our being in this world and perhaps other worlds we use to navigate our way through life at sea and risk; to live through survival.