Builders of Wooden Boats Brave the '90s
Island partners help anchor a tradition and a community
VINEYARD HAVEN, MASS.
IT'S only a short walk from the ferry dock here to the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway. But it's a lot further than that in time. The draw-knives, calipers, broad axes, and other hand tools hanging from the walls of the shed at Gannon & Benjamin's, the wooden schooners and sloops resting on carriages that roll on rails that come out of the harbor waters, the aroma of cut pine and oak - all recall a time when this village hummed to the sawing, chiseling, and hammer blows of shipwrights.Skip to next paragraph
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Boats under repair at Gannon & Benjamin's range from canoes and dinghies to the When and If, a 65-foot schooner built in 1939 for then Col. George S. Patton. The proud old craft went on the rocks north of Boston in 1990, stoving in one side. Restoration has been under way for three years.
Reverence for time-proven boat-building methods permeates this yard, but there's nothing quaint or antique about the operation run by Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin. These two lean, brown-bearded sailor-craftsmen might have walked inconspicuously through the Vineyard Haven of a century ago, but their business is anchored in the 1990s, sustained by modern boat owners who share their love of wooden craft.
Wooden-boat owners include some of the Vineyard's more famous inhabitants, such as singer James Taylor, who owns a 25-foot, gaff-rigged sloop designed by Mr. Benjamin. Those who appreciate Gannon & Benjamin's niche in the world of sailing include President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Their late-summer vacation in Martha's Vineyard included an evening cruise on the 72-foot yawl Zorra, which was bought and refurbished by the boatmaking partners in 1986.
Benjamin recalls ``many, many memorable sails'' over the years, some of which presented challenges far greater than how to accommodate the Secret Service on that cruise with the Clintons. Benjamin, his wife, Pam, and their two daughters have sailed to the Caribbean numerous times. He has crossed the Atlantic in small sailing craft three times.
On one crossing, Benjamin had to rescue his one-man ``crew,'' who fell overboard one morning as they sailed before the wind in mid-ocean. Benjamin was below preparing breakfast; he came on deck to find his crew gone. The needle-in-a-haystack rescue, accomplished after a wide turn against the wind, is matter-of-factly told by Benjamin.
Time at sea is crucial. ``It makes sense for the people putting a boat together to know what kind of punishment it'll take when it gets out there,'' Benjamin says.
On a recent drizzly fall day, the other half of this maritime partnership, Ross Gannon, was down in the hold of his own boat, a 45-foot sloop built in 1955. It had been taken out of the water for late-season repairs and repainting. This boat, a classic design, is living quarters for Mr. Gannon about half of the year. It has the attention to detail that makes boat building an art, according to its owner - the kind of concern for function and appearance that Gannon and Benjamin apply in their own building.