The whole man behind WoodenBoat Magazine

As a boatbuilder, publisher, and healer, Jon Wilson has always followed his heart.

Nat Benjamin of Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway talks with Jon Wilson (via Skype). —Teresa Kruszewski

In a coastal community about evenly divided between fishermen and sailors, the latter stuffed themselves at a visual feast at the Film Center on Wednesday evening, May 3. On the menu were two short films about wooden sailboats and the people who have devoted their lives to keeping these boats afloat and their lore alive. The common thread was a passion for the sea and being on it in sailboats that were lovingly crafted by hand from natural material — wood.

The first film, “Cape Horn Passage in Schooner Wander Bird,” recounts a young family’s 1936 voyage, by sail, from Gloucester to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn, where sea conditions are as treacherous as anyplace on earth. The boat was owned and mastered by Warwick and Gwen Tompkins, whose two young children, Warwick Jr. and Anne, were aboard, along with an additional crew of six. Now 85, Warwick Jr. narrates the film, with warmth and admiration for his father’s pluck along with the expertise he’s accumulated over a lifetime of sailing sophisticated ocean-racing yachts around the world. Warwick Jr., who was 4 at the time, had the run of the vessel, from bowsprit to masthead, sometimes nude, and never in a life preserver.

The evening’s main feature focused on the extraordinary life of Jon Wilson, known primarily as the founder and editor of WoodenBoat Magazine. Growing up in a chaotic household where he was often left to fend for himself, Mr. Wilson found solace messing about in boats during childhood summers spent along the Connecticut coast. On the water, he found “a place of peace,” he says in the film. “That was where I found my heart’s home.” Nurturing that home has been a thread throughout his life.

After dropping out of college and a period of counterculture experimentation, Mr. Wilson found work in a boatyard in Branford, Conn. “I realized what I really wanted to do was work on boats, just in order to feed my soul.” Without getting all woo-woo about it, as he put it, he found something soulful in wood, not only the material itself but also the way it responded to the practiced hands of craftsman who loved working with it.

The infatuation of his childhood matured into the love of his life, and he thought he’d be satisfied if he built a few good boats. Soon enough, though, he felt that he had to do more than that. “Wooden boats were on their way to going extinct in the mid-’60s, and I thought, damn it, I want to do something about it,” Mr. Wilson says.

That something turned into a magazine, WoodenBoat, that in only a few years became the voice and the binding agent for those who love creating, maintaining, and sailing boats as they’ve been built since time immemorial — by hand and with natural material. “I thought, This is what I must do, start a magazine,” he says. “I believed so much in the genius of wooden boat design and especially their construction. I thought if only people understood what was within these boats, they would appreciate that genius.” As he spoke he gently cradled half-models of boats he’s admired, both new and old, in his hands. To many sailors, a boat’s shape, her lines, are both essential and sensual, a gorgeous blend of form and function that leaves one wondering how something that beautiful can serve its purpose, moving through water so perfectly.

Mr. Wilson had no idea how to start a magazine, but, fortunately, he never considered that it wouldn’t work. He recalls, “I didn’t know I could write when I started the magazine. My training was the desire to be heard,” a recurring need since childhood, he implies. “I relied on instinct and intuition.”

With the help of his first wife, Mr. Wilson first published the magazine in the kitchen of a small, make-do house that they built for themselves and their two little children way off the grid in mid-coast Maine. Reflecting on it, there was a wistful, slightly apologetic tone in his voice, as if he’s wondered since then if he asked too much of his young family.

Within five years, both the family and the magazine were out of the woods, the latter breaking even, and growing. Over the next 15 years, WoodenBoat Publications added a store, a boatbuilding school, a boat show, and a sister publication, Professional BoatBuilder. Despite the dominance of synthetic materials in the boatbuilding industry as a whole, Mr. Wilson had obviously tapped into a vibrant, sometimes fanatical readership.

Even as the company exceeded Mr. Wilson’s initial expectations, however, he found himself antsy, perhaps because he’d been taught “how to make curiosity work” by an intellectual mentor many years earlier. “There was something incomplete in me, something I wanted to be the agent of, something that wasn’t being expressed in WoodenBoat.” The result was a new magazine, Hope, about “people who were trying to make the world a better place, people being in the world and making a difference for themselves and others.”

Hope developed a devoted readership soon enough, but it reached a plateau and stayed there, and Mr. Wilson reluctantly abandoned it after eight years. Near the end, however, while researching a story about how people make peace with themselves, Mr. Wilson found a new, unexpected pathway that he’s been following for the past 16 years. Once again his heart led the way for him.

After a two-week training, Mr. Wilson was on his way to becoming a facilitator for victims (or their survivors) of violent crimes to address — in person, in prison — the people who committed the crimes. Called Victim-Offender Dialogue, it is initiated by victims or their survivors in hopes of coming to terms, somehow, with the horrific trauma that they have experienced.

It is grueling, heart-wrenching work, according to Mr. Wilson, who had pictured himself sailing peacefully off to who knows where at this point in his life. But the work feeds a need in him that’s been there forever, and likely will continue to be there forever. “I want to facilitate the process by which people get heard,” he says. “That’s really who I am and who I’ve been. It’s made me feel like I have accomplished something, and I’m leaving the world a little bit better place … and that’s important to me.”