Launching Nautical History

A 19th-century style wooden fishing schooner is built and sets sail off the coast of Massachusetts.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jim Lane, a retired telephone-company employee, remembers fishing schooners under construction in shipyards along the Essex River when he was a youngster in the 1940s. Then only two or three schooners were built a year. In the mid-1800s, at the height of the industry, as many as 50 vessels a year were built by 15 to 20 shipyards that operated along the Massachusetts river.

The call for wooden fishing boats declined as modern technology took hold, forcing most yards to close. The A.D. Story Shipyard, however, operated as a marina where Mr. Lane kept his boat for many years. When the shipyard became part of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum in 1994, he still hung around, immersing himself in the history of boat building.

"I thought the museum should be building a ship; after all we call it a working museum," Lane says. And then along came Tom Ellis, a native of Gloucester, Mass. - the oldest fishing port in the country, explains Lane. He proposed building a wooden fishing schooner and using it as a tool for teaching children and adults about this vital piece of American history. Mr. Ellis wanted the museum to be the site, and he would provide the materials and workers.

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"I've heard stories all my life about my grandfather who was a fisherman," says Ellis. "I've been in the business of selling pieces of history in my antique store, and I've always been interested in sailing."

Ellis named the schooner after his grandfather, Thomas E. Lannon, who fished out of Gloucester from 1901 to 1943. For Ellis, building the Lannon at the museum shipyard where the industry began was a logical first step in bringing the area's history back to life.

Gloucester was known up and down the Eastern seaboard for its fleet of schooners - the envy of sailors everywhere. They were built in nearby Essex shipyards and towed down the Essex River to Gloucester to be fitted before they set sail. Of the more than 4,000 built, a handful remain.

"Building the schooner is not just a dream to have a big toy to sail around in," says Ellis's wife, Kay, who along with her husband is a principal in this project. "The only way to afford a boat like the Lannon is to run it as a commercial venture. We know that we have to make this enterprise a business success."

In that vein, passengers are able to hear stories about the 1800s and try their hand at jigging for cod, as well as join Sunday brunch tours or moonlight sails.

Support from the people of Essex and Gloucester has been overwhelming. Most of the timber used to build the Lannon was donated by private landowners and by conservation groups. The 10 to 12 full-time employees were local boat builders by trade.

"People keep asking where we found workers to build the schooner," says Mrs. Ellis. "The thing about wooden boats is that they always need restoration, and to restore a boat it has to be taken apart and put back together again. So there are plenty of boat builders with a lot of knowledge."

Anyone interested in the project was able to lend a hand. "There were regular volunteers who came to help every single week," says Mrs. Ellis. Very early on, Diane Gardner called and volunteered to do anything. She is an administrator for the central-artery highway project in Boston and has an ability to find all kinds of materials. Her partner, Mark Mitsock, a safety engineer, says they both have a passion for schooners and heard about the Lannon through the small community of sailors who work on the "big boats." Both showed up every weekend to work on the Lannon.

The experts included people like builder and designer Harold Burnham, whose boat-building family goes back to 1650. Mr. Burnham designed the half model - the beginning of a wooden boat. Once that was built, the process moved to a huge loft where life-size drawings of each piece were made. The drawings were used to create life-size molds of the ribs and frame. While this was going on, the logs were delivered to the shipyard, the planks were cut to size, and construction began.

The Ellises are promoting the Lannon as a sail on a "natural resource."

"The wood was available to build her because the Essex County Greenbelt has been protecting a piece of forest for the last 15 years," says Mr. Ellis. "The protected forests were at a point where big trees needed to be cut off so that the smaller trees below the canopy could get sunlight to grow. Today kids can sail on the Lannon only because someone was smart enough to protect that resource."

Ten months after the first log was unloaded at the Story Shipyard, the Thomas E. Lannon, the first Essex fishing schooner built in 50 years, was launched on June 29 into the Essex River, towed to Gloucester, and outfitted with masts, rigging, and sails. On July 18, the Lannon went on its first voyage into an ocean once speckled with scores of two-masted schooners.

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