Just upriver from the Bath Iron Works on Maine's muddy Kennebec is the best seat for the symphony of the shipbuilders. Great riveters pound out a modern beat that echoes far into the back woods. The hiss of giant torches and the whine of drills and cutters are the high, medium, and low notes in a contemporary classic: steel shipbuilding in this bastion of boatbuilders for more than 300 years.Skip to next paragraph
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Just upcoast there is the gentler rhythm of an age-old masterpiece: wooden boatbuilding by hand. Here in Rockport, wooden mallets, called beetles, strike wooden spikes, called trunnels. Their sonic ''pocks'' beneath the balsam fir sound out the prologue to the music of their counterparts down the coast.
Here, you can smell lacquer, fresh-cut cedar, and pine. Hand-held broadaxes and adzes rough out future keels, lending their sounds to a concert of many movements, instruments entering and exiting the performance to the cue of a master boatbuilder.
The handful of people who ''play'' these instruments study and perform in this smaller, but equally-active barnwood beehive. But the hands that fashion in Apprenticeshop Inc. fashion in wood. Dories, peapods, pinkies, skiffs, and sloops are built here and christened nearby. Builders of wooden boats use older tools: fids and marlinespikes, cant hooks and peaveys, drawknives and spokeshaves. They use modern ones as well: electric drills, sanders, saws. They hew knees of hackmatack, planks of cedar or pine, and frames of oak to form usable, functioning sculpture.
Like the lacquers, oils, and paints used to preserve a boat's seaworthiness, the Apprenticeshop wants to halt the deterioration of an art. That includes the knowledge of material and designs used for all manner of wooden boats. And it includes teaching, recording, and publishing voluminous research into tricks of the trade that developed over generations.
The ideas that buoy this remarkable wooden enterprise emanate from director Lance Lee. With a handful of volunteers, he built and launched the original Apprenticeshop in Bath in 1972.
''Boats are simply a means to an end,'' says Mr. Lee. ''And that's difficult for the public to perceive. We're so product-oriented that recognizing that the center of this place is a process, and a process that happens to an apprentice or a series of apprentices - that's what's beneath the surface.''
The end Lee speaks of is the development in young people of confidence, self-reliance, and the preservation in action of traditional skills all too easily lost. The lexicon of those skills is dying out, too: lofting, worming, rabbeting, faying, parceling, and splining.
But the end is also the preservation of attitudes: resourcefulness, care, workmanship, tenacity, and pride. The means to all of this, he says, just happen to be extraordinary examples of technology and craftsmanship.
The Apprenticeshop offers the hardest possible way of building a boat - by hand, and to very demanding specifications, Lee says. ''It's the hardship in it that results in a very fierce pride, a sense of well-being, resourcefulness, a certain steadiness, patience, and a practiced - rather than professed - integrity.''
It was these ideas that brought about the Apprenticeshop, ''more a revival of a way of life'' than anything else, Lee says. This is a nonprofit, educational venture. The traditional small craft built here are usually 10 to 35 feet long. Over the years, the Apprenticeshop has built and sold over 130 small craft, from Washington County peapods to the famous Phippsburg hamptons and Swampscott dories.
Sale of the boats and publications, grants from various foundations, and two smaller educational programs sustain the shop.
The crew of this earthbound wooden boat is the 10 to 15 or so young apprentices working here - no tuition, no wage - at any given time year-round. For one reason or another - desire to learn a craft, love of boats, a desire to sail away from the rat race - they've made their way here. What they find is a specific kind of nonacademic, hands-on education that builds character while it builds boats, according to Lee. Apprentices come for 18 months, supply their own living expenses, and stay in quarters by the shop.