Celebrating the world of the wooden boat


Nantucket filmmaker John Stanton brings his new documentary “Wood Sails Dreams” to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Thursday, Nov. 7. The hour-long film explores the growth in popularity of wooden boats in the past 40 years and celebrates a culture that resists many of the currents in contemporary life. The filmmaker will be present for a Q&A session after the film. In addition, two new, critically acclaimed films, “All Is Lost” and “Twelve Years a Slave,” will open at the Film Center this weekend.

“I’m not a sailor, but people keep assuming I am,” Mr. Stanton said in a telephone interview last weekend. About four years ago, he found himself waiting in line at the Nantucket post office and struck up a conversation with Nick Johnson, then director of Nantucket Community Sailing, an organization that, like Sail Martha’s Vineyard, seeks to promote sailing and provide access to the sport for young people. The two agreed that a film about the Nantucket-based Opera House Cup, the oldest wooden boat event on the East Coast, was a good idea. More than 60 boats competed in last summer’s 41st Opera House Cup.

Mr. Stanton commandeered a lobsterman friend to use his boat to film the regatta, and what started as a 15-minute short grew into an hour-long feature film. “I became fascinated with this little, interconnected community,” he said. He had already made “Last Call,” a film about the Bosun’s Locker, a legendary Nantucket bar and hangout, but he didn’t want to become known merely as “the guy who makes films about how cool the 70s were.”

Each time Mr. Stanton talked to one wooden boat person, he made connections to others, eventually finding his way to the Vineyard’s resident wooden boat specialists, Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon. He calls them two of the most genuine guys you could meet, and interviews with them figure prominently in the film.

“I don’t think you need to be an expert as long as you understand the bigger picture,” Mr. Stanton said. He enlisted Dan Driscoll and Tom McGill, both of whom have boating backgrounds, to work on the project and keep him on the straight and narrow. “It’s a tricky line to decide what your vision is and still pull back to be accurate,” he continued. “There’s a real need to bring both of these things together.” He found his initial lack of boating expertise kept him from going in with preconceived notions. “It’s all a journey of discovery for me,” he said.

People who build wooden boats create something permanent in a world that is increasingly digital and throw-away, according to Mr. Stanton. He pointed to Dan Shea of a Bristol, R.I., boatyard as someone who feels a responsibility to pass on his trade to the next generation. “I am just blown away by that conviction that what you do needs to continue,” Mr. Stanton said. It is hard to imagine another part of American life where people feel that way about their work, he suggests.

“While making the film, I came to see that the work of building a wooden boat is a form of art,” he said. “I think one definition of art is that it is alchemy, to take basic materials and put them together in a way that results in something of beauty and causes us to dream.” He sees the goal of documentary filmmaking as giving the audience a way to walk around in somebody else’s world and gain an understanding of it. “Hopefully you don’t need to know about sailing or sailboats to enjoy the film,” he said. “But if you do know something about it, hopefully it will ring true.”

Wooden Boat Magazine founder Jon Wilson narrates “Wood Sails Dreams.” Among those interviewed for the film are Elizabeth Tiedemann, who received the Maritime Heritage Award with her husband, Bob, for their work restoring classic wooden yachts; and naval architect Halsey Herreshoff, the America’s Cup sailor who designed the Freedom 40 ketch and established the America’s Cup Hall of Fame at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, R.I.

Arresting shots of wooden boats at sail or under construction will keep viewers interested while they learn about the traditions and culture of wooden boats and meet some of its more colorful characters. The film starts with the story of the Opera House Cup, which was responsible for the revival of wooden boats 40 years ago, after the advent of fiberglass boats threatened to render them extinct. The film also describes how a number of wooden boats have been rescued and restored. As Mr. Benjamin points out, the tight sense of community that marks wooden boating continues today.

“Wood Sails Dreams,” Thursday, Nov. 7, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 children under 14. For information or tickets, visit mvfilmsociety.com.