Wooden boatbuilders

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.

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.

''Some have been carpenters, some cabinetmakers, some have never lifted a chisel,'' says former apprentice and now assistant director Steve McAllister.

The first thing they all learn, including former woodworkers and furniture makers, is the incredible capabilities of wood. ''Cabinetmaking is scratching the surface of what wood can do,'' said one-time senior apprentice Steve Ellis, now 24. ''In boatbuilding you push the wood to its limits. You use every bit of potential the wood has got, every strand, every fiber.''

One apprentice's journal describes the rhythm of the framing dance: ''First the right quick grab and flip of the steam box door without scorching the wrist off, the carefully determined movements of prestretching and prebending the oak like hot taffy in your hands, it's hard to describe the sensation of actually feeling the fibers stretch. . . .''

Apprentices learn the myriad shapes their material can take. Rabbet and butt joints follow complex curves to fit perfectly over long sweeps. In boatbuilding joinery, accuracy must be to within 1/32nd of an inch. While one apprentice is sanding, another must kneel under the bilge (raised on saw horses) to drive as many as 4,000 1 1/2-inch wood screws into a pinky's hull. And apprentices find that cutting and checking the changing bevel of each of the 24 cedar planks is hard work.

''Nature doesn't waste much time on outrageous designs,'' Ellis says. ''It whittles away what isn't needed. It's the same with boats. After a while you develop an eye to see a fair curve, almost like you're imagining yourself as water slipping around it. The water tells you what to whittle away and what to keep.''

The rest of one day's journal entry also lends some telling insights into apprenticework:

My hands are now well filled with darkening linseed oil from the hot frames, and my palms feel tight red and slimy from being scorched for two days, even through the cotton gloves. We framed up the pinky, 62 frames in all, breaking only about four or five, compared to the last pinky 25 or so. . . . So the boat now looks like one, having a definite inside and outside, a beautiful progression of widening and undulating curves from frame to frame, drawing the eye into their movements. There is no better way to understand, to feel, to grasp the Geist of the hull than to frame it in.m

Apprentices must provide their own hand tools. They spend long, arduous hours of planing, lofting (a process by which each section of the boat is measured and drawn), hammering, sawing, sanding. In addition they must tend wood stoves in winter and maintain the boats already built as well as the buildings - occasionally repairing a leaky roof, for instance. They must serve as interpreters for the visitors coming to this sequestered complex on one of Rockport's rocky coves. (Started as a living exhibit in the Maine Maritime Museum, the small staff of eight broke away in September to incorporate here as Apprenticeshop Inc.)

Lee feels strongly about the missing factor in many of the otherwise excellent maritime museums that represent America's seafaring heritage: ''Though innumerable archives and artifacts - including many ships - are on display, we have seldom maintained the skills, the practices, and the outlooks which established the remarkable strength of the late 19th- and early 20th-century merchant-marine small-craft tradition. . . .

''That record is one of ingenious pragmatism, rare beauty of line and function, and some of the cleverest husbandry and resourcefulness in history.''

Lee suggests that the heedless flaunting of the necessity to pass on these skills may stem from ''the ungentle truth'' that such preservation is a messy, difficult, and at times dangerous business.

''The transfer of mere information by sight, touch, and hearing is vastly easier,'' he says. ''But the lessons learned through demands once made on people are lost when information only is our institutional offer to the future.''

The Apprenticeshop regards the death of a great boatbuilding artisan as a not-too-subtle reminder that the boatbuilders who remain are the stewards of that individual's artistry, discovery, and care. The shop's goal goes beyond simply protecting and others' works, their boats and artifacts. The goal is the perpetuation of his skill and technology.

The elder statesman of the shop, who shares Lee's ideas about teaching and learning, is master boatbuilder Dave Foster. After more than 20 years of building wooden boats, the increasing use of fiberglass almost drove him from the field. Now, the Apprenticeshop is graced by his omnipresent guidance, ''not teaching too much nor too little,'' Lee says.

What is perhaps radical about the program is that after two years, apprentices might emerge with the satisfaction of having obtained only the most rudimentary skills in an occupation that there isn't much call for nowadays.

The Apprenticeshop has graduated about 42 apprentices in its first decade. Many have reportedly found work in boat construction and repair. Others took the additional skills and attitudes they learned here back to furniture making or house construction. Some teach in school shops, marine museums, or in other boatbuilding programs.

In addition to two-year apprenticeships, the Apprenticeshop has a six-week internship program with a tuition of $600. The shop accepts two interns at a time, assigning each to an apprentice. And volunteers work here, too, in six-week stints, helping with chores, but not building boats. Their work might involve sailing the 35-foot Tancook Whaler that delivers firewood to coastal islands for additional income - or helping to construct a lumber-drying shed.

A legion of volunteers helped Lee build the original shop in Bath. It was made from the timbers of an old sail loft that was set on the foundations of a once-prosperous shipyard.

''We had that incredible good fortune that always strikes when you set out on an adventure like this,'' Lee says. ''We found an old foundation here from World War I. The cement foundations were from a Liberty Ship operation that had burned in the '20s, and the width of those foundations were 32 feet. We also found an old sail loft, 19th century, in Waldoboro, and the width of it was 32 feet.''

Lee himself grew up on an island in the northern Bahamas, graduated from Bowdoin College in 1960, and was for three years a Marine Corps artillery officer in the Far East and the Mediterranean. Later, he spent several years teaching youths in Outward Bound Schools on both sides of the Atlantic. In the early '70s, eight months aboard a Norwegian bark (a three-masted sailing vessel) convinced him that in and through the great skills passed down for centuries lay one of the surest and finest routes to full, competent, and useful maturity.

''I didn't speak much Norwegian. The bosun didn't speak English. That wasn't the language we worked in; the language was skills. The things that he taught me through the hands inspired the daylights out of me.

''I couldn't deny that he had gotten a lot of that strength of character from what he had done. I came away believing that skills were a terrific method of transferring something that you can't really define very well . . . an inner strength or a tenacity or a steadiness.''

Lee says that after he looked ''at the academic route to maturity, which is pretty much what the West has subscribed to for the last 50 to 100 years,'' he began to see we need both: academic skills andm manual. So he decided a school based on the transfer of skill and the exposure to straightforward raw experience would probably be a good thing.

(Lee is quick to mention that philanthropy, a combination of government and private donations, accounts for a third of the shop's income. He is grateful for the many specific matching grants over the years from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.)

''When we see the end results of the Apprenticeshop, we see the new resourcefulness,'' Lee says. The apprentices ''not only have a negotiable skill , but a way of life they can share with other people.

''They carry a definite knowledge that they are needed. The misery of unimportance is something they have overcome. The people I think that are most excited about the shop are excited about that very element and know perfectly well that it's missing in most factories, colleges, and high schools.''

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