On deck at Gannon and Benjamin boatyard

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The wet, dreary weather wasn’t going to keep any of this crowd away. Over 100 people flocked to Gannon and Benjamin’s Marine Railway boatyard shop talk last Saturday morning. And it wasn’t just the free coffee and muffins that attracted folks. Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin have been designing, building, repairing, and maintaining wooden boats since 1980, constructing more than 70 substantial vessels, mostly to Nat Benjamin’s designs. They are thoroughly involved in every step of the process, from design to selection of wood, construction, rigging, and outfitting.
Brad Abbot quieted the group down and set the stage at the beginning of the talk: “Thanks for coming out to the boatyard to see what we’re up to this winter. We have some interesting things going on and we’d like to share them with you.” Abbot explained that he partnered up with Gannon and Benjamin about 10 years ago in operating the boatyard, then he turned it over to Benjamin.
“It’s been a great run for us. And 2020 is our 40th anniversary year, and we wanted to reach out to the community because the community has been such a part of what we do. Part of our history is a particularly dark day in October 1989, when our whole boatyard burned down, and the community came back and really put us back to work and got us back on our feet. So you’re all a big part of this place, and we really appreciate it,” Benjamin said.
Although Gannon and Benjamin calls itself a small boatyard, it felt anything but with their three sites for us to visit. We began in the back of the main shop on Beach Road, first gathering around the Aage Neilson yawl. Lyle Zell, Gannon’s son, and Andy Chapman are working on the 30-foot yawl, replacing the heavy timbers in the back end of the boat and replanking the bottom, as well as installing a new fuel tank.
Nearby, we looked at the Hazel, an elegant plank-on-frame daysailer design that Nat Benjamin designed and named after his granddaughter. Apparently, he names all his designs after females in his family. Although they had built two of the Hazels before, this one has yet to be in the water. But all that’s left is to put the hardware on, assemble the rig, a little bit of painting, and then it’s done and ready to go for the summer season, which must please the gentleman from Nantucket who commissioned the work.
When the presentation was opened up to questions, someone asked what seemed to be on many people’s minds: Do most folks who own wooden boats keep them inside or outside during the winter? They said it’s not so much whether the craft is inside or out, but that it isn’t in a warm place; Gannon and Benjamin have some boats inside and others outside. Overall, what’s paramount is to keep it cool and moist, outside on gravel or in a barn. Boats are brought indoors to be painted or when repairs are done.
The group headed across the street, trudging through the rain and avoiding deep puddles on the way to a huge shed that Gannon and Benjamin use for different stages of maintenance. An impressive amount of boats are squeezed into the space like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. “It’s a miracle to have an indoor storage place where we can keep a couple of guys painting all winter long,” Benjamin said.
Abbott added, “It’s our second season we’ve been able to lease from the folks who bought the Hinckley property. It helps immensely to be able to do the work inside.”
While it was obvious that there was a lot of painting going on, which they do by hand, the bulk of the conversation was about what they term “preventive maintenance,” regularly coating the boats with two to four coats of varnish annually. If you don’t follow that process every year, you might pay for it down the line.
Next, we made our way through yet more mud and puddles to the space that they call “Mugwump,” which incongruously means a person who remains aloof or independent. Staring us head-on as we walked up was John Alden’s gaff cutter, Lark, which sits naked, stripped of just about everything, and looking even bigger than its already impressive 45 feet. She was built in 1932 by the Lawley boatyard in Quincy, and designed for the Forbes family of Naushon Island as a racing and cruising vessel. John Kerry is the new owner, and he is having a major rehaul done. When they opened the boat up, they realized the only solution was to completely rebuild it. It’s being reframed and replanked, with new timbers added. Myles Thurlow in West Tisbury is building a new mast for it, new spars, and new sails. Despite looking essentially like a skeleton, it will be ready for a Fourth of July launch.
“We’ve received such incredible support from the community for over 40 years now, and know there are people out there who are interested in what we do,” Gannon said. “We’re thinking in the future we could show people how we do some interesting things. We could have events like this and show people special things we do, such as steam-bending of frames or filing a plank or making patterns for castings. The stuff that people think is magic, anybody can do it.”
We should all be so lucky.