“Schooner” by Tom Dunlop and Alison Shaw


“Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha’s Vineyard” by Tom Dunlop, photographs by Alison Shaw, Vineyard Stories, July 1, 2010. 160 ppg. $44.95.

It is certain that sailing vessels have a soul. Powerboats may have character, but probably not a soul. “Schooner,” by Alison Shaw and Tom Dunlop, reveals the spirit of Rebecca, a 60-foot schooner conceived and born in a shed in Vineyard Haven, overlooking Lagoon Pond. This is not just a book about building a boat; not even a book about building a wooden boat, a special class in this day of fiberglass, carbon fiber, and kevlar. This is a book about honoring tradition, protecting history and enjoying every minute of the hard work it takes. Yes, “Schooner” does explain much of the dying art of wooden boat building, and it does it well, but Alison’s elegant abstracts of Rebecca’s soul are the special treat.

You can “read” this book in many ways. This history of Gannon and Benjamin’s business and the construction of Rebecca is punctuated by dissertations on various details of design and construction — often illustrated by Alison’s thoughtful images. It is probably best to take all the journeys — one trip through for the photographic joys, one for the story, and then one for the details and a closer study of the construction lessons. This is a grand coffee table book that can feed your visual hunger, your historical interests, and your love of wooden boats.

Having introduced the principals, Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon, and put them in the context of the creation of a viable boat building business (some 65 boats in 30 years and counting), “Schooner” will take you on your journey to meet Rebecca. She is conceived on modest sized pieces of paper (a sail plan, drawings of her lines from all angles — beam, bottom and each end on several renderings drawn by Nat Benjamin) by hand; no computer-aided stuff here.

A process called “lofting” then transfers these lines to full size on a white painted plywood floor in the shed where Rebecca will be built. The transfer of the drawings to the shed floor takes just six days in the hands of the master. ‘”All these lines,” says Nat, looking at them as they begin to lace over the plywood, “tell you things: how the boat’s going to plank, how it’s going to look, how it’s going to go through the water.”‘ And for the first time, six days later one can see her true heft, walk the length of her deck and imagine the placement of masts, cockpit, helm, hatches, and foredeck. The lofting makes for wonderful images, using Alison’s special skill in abstracting the sense of the task. One of my favorites is a hammer pulling a nail from a blood red waterline drawn on the lofting floor. The waterline is the only element in perfect focus.

The forekeel and the wooden portion of the keel emerge from massive pieces of angelique found and brought from Suriname forests in South America. The use of angelique is an adjustment due to the lack of sufficiently hefty white oak in this country. The keel is as much as two feet wide at the bottom and needs to be free of knots and other blemishes. As Tom patiently builds the story with sidebars and narrative, Alison evokes critical moments with tone poems in amber, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The simplest elements of Rebecca or her building process become the canvas upon which Alison works her abstract magic. A sledge driving a massive keel bolt is silhouetted against a half open window in the boat shed. Red lead paint oozes from between pieces of the keel being compressed by massive bronze bolts and we wonder at the pattern.

Tom explains how the 26,000 pound lead keel is fabricated in Providence, R.I. and then shipped to the Vineyard. We are taught how “double-sawn” frames are created and the differences between these and lighter “steam-bent” frames. Rebecca will have both, the combination maintaining strength, while keeping weight at the levels sought by Nat. Attached to the “floor timbers,” which are attached to the keel, the frames, or ribs, give shape to the hull, and must be perfectly aligned in order for the planks to run fair along their edges. The plumb bob hanging in this cavity to check alignment gives Alison another opportunity to lay simplicity on complexity — as only she can do.

The history of Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway is injected from time to time, as we are reminded of the fire that destroyed the boatbuilding shed in 1989, and the community response that saw the structure rebuilt in less than a month. The reconstruction of the When and If, General George Patton’s 60-foot schooner wrecked on the North Shore of Massachusetts, provides an opportunity to learn how to make double-sawn frames when Nat and Ross had only used steam-bent frames before. Tom weaves these historic vignettes into the Rebecca saga artfully without any sense of intrusion.

Having built the ribs and spine of Rebecca, which are the subject of marvelous photos recording the complexity and beauty of the naked creature, the authors move on to the skin that will cover the bones. “Planking” is done with angelique and silver ballis (another rainforest hardwood) and is secured to the ribs (frames) with screws in pre-drilled holes that allow for “bungs” of wood to cover the screw holes. “Bungs” are made from the same wood as the planks and are fashioned by a drill similar to a cookie cutter. Once pounded into the screw hole, the excess bung must be shaved off to lie flat on the plank. The same process is used for the deck planks, so one can only speculate how many thousand bungs must be made, inserted, and shaved for a 60-foot boat.

Once planked, and deck beams installed, the elegant interiors can take shape. Cabins for the captain, owner, and guests, along with the saloon and galley, must be framed and enclosed with varnished surfaces that gleam and invite. Tom and Alison create these spaces for the reader with their individual talents, and anyone turning the pages wishes he or she was on board about to cruise to other islands to our south. Spars and rigging are carefully chronicled and one more of Alison’s abstracts sticks in my mind — the butt end of the mainmast, which shows the lamination of this hollow staff, which will carry most of the load as Rebecca heels as much as 30 degrees in a strong breeze. The mast is made of spruce in eight full length sections, which are connected to one another in what is called a “birds’ mouth” joint — as if an open bird’s mouth is grabbing the next section until an octagon is formed, producing a hollow mast of great strength. Apparently this technique was a first in mast design.

From here the story moves on to launching festivities and the smiles of all participants, from builders to the second owners — the first owners’ bankruptcy allowed her purchase by English (actually Scottish) owners who have taken her far and wide. But the great achievement of this book is not all the details, which are interesting and valuable, but the conjuring of Rebecca’s soul from the sweat, sawdust, lofting lines, tapered planks, bungs, and sheer determination of the team that saw her down the ways to the sea. She is a lovely craft, and “Schooner” is a worthy introduction to her.

J. B. Riggs Parker of Chilmark, a lawyer by training, has traveled many saltwater miles, cruising widely with his family, under sail and power. He is a photographer whose work has been published in book form and displayed in galleries. And, he has served as the Vineyard member of the Steamship Authority and as a Chilmark selectman.

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