Builders of Wooden Boats Brave the '90s

Island partners help anchor a tradition and a community

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.

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.

Gannon points out the dovetailed hatch covers and the way the weathered teak decking is joined by ``locked scarfs'' amidships for added strength. Even nearly invisible details matter, such as a slight molding carved into the outermost deck plank to help conduct water to a scupper, or drain.

Typically, Gannon and Benjamin begin work on a new boat as winter sets in. During the long, cold months the repair and maintenance work trails off, and more creative work is possible. Boat building begins with ``lofting.'' Benjamin's plans are drawn full size on the shed floor. The backbone is laid down, and plywood molds are set upon it. Ribbands - strips of wood - hold the molds in place.

Frames, the ``ribs'' of the boat, are attached. The planks that form the outer skin of the ship are fastened next. The ribbands come off as the planking progresses. When the planking is done, the molds are removed.

``The boat evolves as you build it,'' Gannon says. The plans are very simple, he explains, and you make a lot of changes as you go along. The yard doesn't make much money on new boats, he adds, because the impulse to add time-consuming details, especially toward the end, is irresistible. ``You have to ask yourself, `What are you making an hour?' But the details are everything....''

Benjamin designs boats in a small room in his weathered, gray-shingled house about a mile's walk up Main Street from the yard. No computer-assisted-design here. His drawing board is surrounded by taped-up pictures of sailing boats, some harking back to the ``age of sail,'' others more modern. He spreads out the plans for a boat he's designing for someone in a nearby town, and explains the different perspectives presented by this ``lines drawing.''

It's pretty heavy going for a layman, but the importance of things like the ``curve of displacement'' begin to sink in. To float on the desired water line, Benjamin patiently explains, the boat has to weigh as much as the weight of the salt water it displaces - which is where the calculation for displacement and lead ballast come in. The work of designing has its own set of tools, such as as the ``splines'' (plastic strips) held in place by lead-weighted ``ducks'' and used to draw the ship's curves.

It's slow, meticulous work, but the results are well worth the effort, according to John Evans, a New Jersey electronics executive who has a home on the Vineyard. The Gannon & Benjamin boat he has owned for many years, a sloop, is ``like a musical instrument,'' he says, ``built to very high standards. It's been fault-free all its life.''

Gannon & Benjamin's has a life to share with the whole island. The bond between this business and the community became clear four years ago this fall when the boatyard burned to the ground. People pooled funds, time, and skills to help the partners rebuild. By the end of that year, wooden boats were being built in a new shed.

As Mr. Evans observes, ``It's not just a boatyard; it's a kind of spiritual center on the island. People love to see something real and honest going on.''

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