Old-fashioned artistry defines a small shop in Brooklin, Maine

artistry_leadIf you had to glean a design and construction philosophy from Doug Hylan’s blog posts, even the worst sleuth would come away with the following:

• Go slower.

• Keep it simple.

• The greatest pleasure per dollar comes with smaller boats.

• Happiness is not so much about boats as boating experiences.

When I mention this by phone to Hylan, as he cruises from the Bahamas to Maine with his wife, he laughs and says he’s an aficionado of both the stop-and-smell-the-sea-breeze boating lifestyle and traditional plank-on-frame boatbuilding.

“That’s the best,” he says of the latter. “You’re working with real material, not little tiny slivers stuck together with petrochemicals. And it’s an amazing skill. You take a set of lines from a boat and somehow you turn that two-dimensional set of lines into a three-dimensional object that has no straight edge. It’s very intellectually stimulating.”

Hylan is the founder of D.N. Hylan & Associates, the Brooklin, Maine, firm specializing in traditionally inspired wooden yacht design, construction and restoration since 2000. The yard has produced 49 builds ranging from 13- and 14-footers — peapods, lapstrake tenders, garveys — to cruisers in the 26- to 43-foot range. All are mostly to Hylan’s design, inspired by the heirloom styles of earlier builders. The shop’s new sailboats are mainly based on designs by Nathanael and L. Francis Herreshoff. Other work includes conversions of early to mid-20th-century workboats for recreational use and restorations of sailboats from the early part of the 20th century.

artistry2Currently on the shop floor is Hylan’s interpretation of a traditional Chesapeake crab scrape, a shoal-draft workboat whose nets scrape the seafloor. It will be a pleasure boat for Ted Okie, who has built 10 boats here. Shop foreman Matt Elwell, installing cleats for the motor well, says the modified design for the 30-foot boat will include a center console, an extended canopy and a cuddy forward with simple but yachty accommodations. In keeping with today’s demand when it comes to wooden boats, construction tilts away from plank-on-frame; instead, the hull is a wood-synthetic composite of marine plywood sheathed with fiberglass outside and Dynel inside. Elwell, who has been with the company from the start, says construction was straightforward, except for the bottom planking near the bow.

“That was a bit of a head-scratcher,” he says, pointing out the sharp curve toward the stem. “Most of the boat, you build with large sheets of plywood. But as you get forward on the bottom, there’s so much twist that you can no longer torture a piece of plywood around there. So you start to use much narrower pieces. Getting that to work was probably the most difficult part of the process.”

Hylan says he fell in love with a beautiful old scrape boat in 2011, when he was delivering another of Okie’s boats from Virginia to Maine. That scrape was hauled out in a boatyard on Tangier Island (the self-described “soft crab capital” of the nation) in Chesapeake Bay. Hylan was struck by the boat’s handsome, sweeping sheer, low freeboard and impressive beam. He took a bunch of pictures. Years passed. Okie commissioned two or three other boats, then decided on the scrape as a great craft to putter around in the shallows.

Although Hylan was away all winter, he remained active in the project. Every day, he talked with Ellery Brown, his general manager and “sweat equity” partner. Brown is exchanging a portion of his work for shares in the company, with expectations that the company will become Hylan & Brown Boatbuilders soon. Brown is from Northampton,  Massachusetts, and as a kid fell in love with a 1927 knockabout sloop designed by John Alden. Alden called the model the Triangle, and this particular Triangle, Kara Su, belonged to a man who lived on MacMahan Island off Georgetown, Maine, where Brown’s family summered.

“I was maybe 14,” he says of the first time he sailed Kara Su. “I thought it was unbelievable. I was in love with this boat.”

Brown went to college, then to The Apprenticeshop boatbuilding program in Rockland, Maine. Just before the recession, he landed at Hylan to restore the 1926 Nathanael      Herreshoff centerboard yawl Aida. He was hooked by the area, a wooden boatbuilding mecca that’s also home to Brooklin Boat Yard.

artistry3“I’ve heard us Brooklin boatbuilders referred to as the Brooklin mafia,” Brown says with a laugh. “It’s a pretty magical place if you’re into wooden boats.”

Hylan also impressed him.

“I really liked the idea of a small shop and the type of boats Doug was building and working on — a lot of traditional restoration work,” he says.

Brown’s office is inside a cedar-shingle building supported by piers on the banks of a quiet cove off the Benjamin River. “This is Hawkins Cove,” he says, pointing out the window. “And that’s where Havilah Hawkins Sr. used to dam off the cove so he could pull in his ships for repairs.”

Hawkins was a sea captain who, in the mid-20th-century, became the first person to run a windjammer business in Camden. He owned three schooners: the restored Stephen Taber and Alice Wentworth, and later the Mary Day, named after his wife and built to his specifications at the Gamage yard in South Bristol. Hawkins tinkered on boats, wooden toys and more in the building that’s now the Hylan office.

Hylan was born and raised outside Boston, and he loved boats from a young age.“My dad was very nervous around boats, but he started to build a little skiff with my older brother when I was maybe 10 or younger,” Hylan says. “My brother wanted it for an outboard, then realized he couldn’t afford an outboard, so the boat languished. So I finished that boat as a sailboat.”

At 14, he built a “disastrous” catamaran with a propensity to bury her lee hull before realizing any speed. In the 1970s, Hylan and his wife moved to the woods of Belgrade, Maine, as part of “the great hippie migration.” After a decade “dabbling in more or less respectable professions,” and starting construction of a plank-on-frame Nelson Zimmer Mackinaw boat, Hylan moved to Brooklin and worked for Jim Steele, a homebuilder who created peapods on the side. Hylan worked on the houses but enjoyed watching Steele build peapods. In 1985, with a recently completed Nutshell pram as his résumé, Hylan approached Brooklin Boat Yard founder Joel White for a job. At the time, White’s operation was small, with a crew of about 10, Hylan recalls. But White’s influence on the budding designer and builder was huge.

artistry4“Because Joel came at his design work from a lifetime of sailing and boatbuilding, you never had to worry if his designs would ‘work,’ either in the shop or on the water,” Hylan writes in a blog post. “His designs were like his speech — simple and right to the point. He didn’t worry himself with the ‘cutting edge’ or with style. He simply borrowed from the past when it worked but was happy to try something new if it looked promising. ‘It’s really very simple,’ Joel would often say when I would present him with some problem that had been vexing me. He wasn’t being the slightest bit condescending — he was just saying, ‘Relax! Life is really much simpler than you are trying to make it. Spend some time on the things that really matter and don’t worry about the rest.’ ”

In 1987, Hylan was ready to strike out. He and John Dunbar bought Benjamin River Marine. Hylan credits maritime historian and Brooklin resident Maynard Bray with helping the yard win interesting projects.

“One of the biggest influences on my career is Maynard Bray,” Hylan says. “He’s always been very interested in restoration, getting them done in a way that alters them as little as possible, and I share a lot of that philosophy.”

Okie came on as one of Hylan’s most important customers. Okie, who summers in Maine, has owned dozens of powerboats and sailboats. His first commission for Hylan was a Rozinante, an L. Francis Herreshoff-designed, double-ended sailboat, followed by a 15-foot Chesapeake Bay crab skiff. Soon after, Okie asked Hylan to restore the 65-foot sardine carrier Grayling, built by Frank Rice of East Boothbay in 1915, and convert it to yacht use.

Grayling was a major restoration, with everything except the keel, part of the deadwood and half of the planking replaced. “Grayling was the clearest example of a piece of American maritime history that was going to be lost if something didn’t happen quickly,” Hylan says. “And it happened in a great way, since the boat is still historically viable. Even the people who used to fish in that boat would recognize it and say, ‘There’s Grayling. It’s just like it used to be.’ ”

The project was a leap for Hylan. “That’s how I went from designing peapods to designing the interior for Grayling,” he says. “So that was quite influential in my career.”

artistry5In 2000, Hylan split off on his own, taking over June Day’s old shop and eventually building an adjacent shop. A couple of employees followed him from Benjamin River Marine; that number grew to just over 10 at the company’s peak, before the recession. Notable new boats included Deliverance, a carvel-planked 43-foot fantail-stern power cruiser launched in 2010. Deliverance’s story began with Okie, who admired the design for a coastal cargo vessel and hired Hylan to rework the lines — increasing the beam and length, reducing draft and displacement, raising the forward deck for better accommodations — but retain the original’s handsome workboat style and classic detailing.

The lobster boat inspires many of Hylan’s designs, including such pleasure cruisers as Brenda Kay, a cold-molded reproduction of a 1950s Beals Island lobster boat, and Bagatelle, a sheathed strip-planked 26-footer with a vee bottom and raised-deck topsides built to 1920s elegance. The design for Posthaste IV, a 34-foot plank-on-frame day cruiser, was based on a 1955 Arno Day lobster boat and elevated with stylish fittings, such as a bronze wheel, custom helm seat and curved windows cut with beveled edges.

For Tug, a plank-on-frame boat launched in 2001, Hylan based his design on a 22-foot William Hand motor fishing boat from 1909. Often called Noank boats in their day, these were small but sturdy craft primarily used for lobstering, able to take all kinds of weather. Hylan also splashed quite a few smaller boats, as well as sailboats, including lapstrake jewels built to Nathanael Herreshoff’s Coquina design, with solid mahogany molded sheer strakes, a Herreshoff trademark.

Restorations and conversions include Nellie, a 1903 L. Francis Herreshoff gaff cutter; the 1915 sardine carrier; a 1950s Beals Island lobster boat now for yacht use; four early 20th-century Nathanael Herreshoff sailboats; a Laurent Giles-designed teak sloop from 1964; and a C.D. Mower sloop that Hodgdon built in 1923. The most recent restoration was Molly B, a 1927 C.C. Hanley cruising catboat.

artistry_bagatelle“She was a long-term restoration,” Brown says. “We basically rebuilt the boat, but over the course of about 10 years.”

Today, in addition to watching Brown and the rest of the crew carry on his boatbuilding traditions, Hylan is indulging his yearning for boating experiences.

“This was our first cruise ever to the Bahamas, and it’s been great,” he says of the recent winter spent aboard with his wife. “I’ll help Ellery with the spring launching work. Then next fall we’re going to get back aboard and head south again.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.

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