‘The value of their treasure’

Ross Gannon (left) and Nat Benjamin react to the prolonged, boisterous applause they received after being officially recognized as the winners of this year's Creative Living Award. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

On the Vineyard Haven waterfront there’s a weathered building that seems like it’s been there forever. In spirit it goes way back, given the maritime history of the harbor, but in fact it’s only 21 years old. Known familiarly as G&B or simply “the boatyard,” Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway has a feeling about it that is somehow romantic and familiar and down to earth — an exotic blend that has led some people to quit their day jobs and let themselves fall into a labor of love there.

Last Thursday, Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin, who own and run the boatyard, were awarded the 2010 Creative Living Award, presented annually for the last 28 years by the Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard.

Funded initially by the late Ruth Bogan of Oak Bluffs, the award was intended to “preserve and nourish” the Vineyard and to “help the present inhabitants to realize the value of their treasure.” Specifically, the goal was to acknowledge and reward “fine craftsmanship, creativity, and ingenuity,” three traits held dear by Ms. Bogan and personified by Ross, the ever-resourceful engineer, and Nat, the inspired designer.

Thursday’s event — more celebration than ceremony — drew upwards of 200 people to the Grange in West Tisbury. There were sailors, friends, and family members of the honorees, past recipients of the award, sailors, boat builders, wharf rats, and more sailors. The assembled were officially greeted by Anne Williamson, the Endowment’s board chairman, who offered a brief history of the Endowment and its importance to philanthropy on the Island. Executive director Ralinda Lurie then outlined the practical workings of the organization and the outlook for its future.

There followed four speakers, all of whom know Ross and Nat well, but from very different perspectives. First was the writer Tom Dunlop who, with photographer Alison Shaw, created “Schooner,” the story of the creation — from Nat’s design to her launching in 2001 — of the 60-foot Rebecca, the largest boat built by the “railway” at that time. He spoke of the historical significance of Vineyard Haven Harbor in the coastal shipping industry before the Cape Cod Canal was dug. In local boatbuilding, he said, “there are direct, unbroken lines of living tradition” in the harbor, and he called the G&B boats “beautiful and enduring ambassadors” of that tradition.

Jim Lobdell, a retired high school teacher, recalled that many people couldn’t afford fiberglass boats when they came along, so they had to resurrect old wooden boats and do whatever it took to keep them going. When Jim told Ross that he had to haul out his boat in Rhode Island, Ross decided to build a railway. “They always have the time to ponder a problem, to answer a question,” Mr. Lobdell said. “They taught all of us how to run and repair boats.”

Myles Thurlow, a master shipwright at 28, is perhaps G&B’s most celebrated alumnus. He started spending one day a week in the boatyard when he was 12, which quickly escalated into two, with weekends and summers thrown in. “They were so generous with their knowledge and their time. Whenever I needed anything — use the tools, get some advice — they were always there.” On the other hand, they knew when to be firm, Miles recalled. “They had a good way of throwing you into the fire. I remember once Ross said to me, ‘Stop asking so many questions. Just do the job.'”

Scott DiBiaso, Juno’s captain, asked the crowd to imagine Vineyard Haven without G&B. “Or what if there was a donut shop there? Fifty boats wouldn’t exist, for one thing. It’s like a living museum. There’s always something going on there, and they take the time to answer questions, no matter how silly. The place holds a special place in our hearts, whether we go there to get a piece of wood for a bird house or to fix or build a boat.”

That G&B is a magnetic place comes as no surprise to anyone who has spent time there. It’s casual but professional, comfortable but tidy, and the smell of the sawdust, and the tar and the oil evokes a sort of primal sentimentality in some people. At the reception after the award was presented, an acquaintance of Nat’s came up to him and said, “If I could afford it, I’d drop everything and come work for you — for nothing.”

After all the praise and funny anecdotes, Emily Bramhall, an Endowment board member and the owner of a G&B sloop, presented the actual award to Ross and Nat.

“Anyone who has sailed on one of their boats has felt a sense of pride watching heads turn in admiration as they sail by,” Ms. Bramhall said. “And I believe that sense of pride extends right out into the Vineyard community. The island treasures this team and values that they are a part of our community. How lucky are we to live among the beauty Nat and Ross have created.”

After prolonged applause — standing applause — when Ms. Bramhall officially presented the award, the two principals beamed and beamed some more. Ross said thank you and a few more words and passed the microphone to Nat like a hot potato.

With characteristic warmth and humor, Nat said, “We haven’t worked a day in our lives. Only on Martha’s Vineyard can you show up, do what you love to do, and get an award!” Then he held up his award and said, “We share it with all of you, and the Island community.”