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Beguiling Beauties

An aspiring boatbuilder finds inspiration amidst the craftsmanship at the WoodenBoat Show

Photos by Kim Tyler

The boats that attend the WoodenBoat Show at Connecticut's Mystic Seaport, such as this Destino 20, aren't just for show.

Walking by the booths and stalls and then the gleaming boats down along the waterfront at this year’s WoodenBoat Show at Mystic Seaport, the refrain keeps circling through my mind like bars from an old melody: “It’s easy if you know how.”

I’d first heard these words decades before when I was courting the woman who would become my wife. She was a potter and, as she went about her work, spinning out one pot after another with what appeared to be magical ease, then trimming them and putting on handles, pouring glaze over them with dazzling precision and fluidity, I’d ask how she could do all that stuff. She’d say, “It’s easy if you know how. That’s what my teacher tells me and it’s true. If you let it be true.”

So here I am, dazzled anew by skill and apparent ease. WoodenBoat magazine has long attracted many of the greatest boatbuilders and their work to its show, held June 29-July 1 at the seaport museum in Mystic, Conn. There’s Rebecca, the 75-foot schooner built by Gannon and Benjamin; Aida, a 1926 Herreshoff yawl restored by Doug Hylan and Associates; the opulent motorsailer Trade Wind, completely rebuilt by Rockport Marine; several gleaming daysailers built by the Artisan Boatworks; and many others.

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But the show goes deeper than these beguiling but in the main unattainable gold-platers, and that’s where I get hooked. In the owner-built section, there are guys just like me standing proudly by their new boats, and you can talk to them. There are people selling stitch-and-glue and plywood lap kits ready to help you understand how you can build one of these in your garage. There are institutions ready to change your career trajectory — the International Yacht Restoration School and The Landing School, both top programs that have sent hundreds of talented graduates into the wooden-boat industry.

Up at the north end of the sprawling show I found the Family Boat Building program in a big tent that had 28 families building several plywood designs. When I visited on the third day of the show, the din of their humming sanders on the glued-up hulls sounded like a swarm of bees.

Walking through the show — checking one beautiful boat after another, watching tool demonstrations, hefting adzes and sighting along plane blades — I could see myself taking on one sort of boatbuilding project or another as the weather turns toward winter. But best of all was the chance to chat with talented wooden-boat builders and soak up their infectious enthusiasm. Nat Benjamin, Warren Barker, Harry Bryan and many others. Maybe it’s the clarity of their work with traditional tools; perhaps it’s a lifelong immersion in design traditions rooted in several centuries. Surely the challenge of trying to get the work right — a pursuit offering unlimited opportunities for humility — plays into it. But whatever the forces at work, these guys radiate a magnetic sort of right-thereness.

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Take it step by step — that’s their collective wisdom. Let yourself slow down into the work. Find the grain of the wood and go with it. It’s amazing what a sharp tool can accomplish, a steady eye. Turn off the world, turn to your hands.

I suppose one could come to the WoodenBoat Show and go away frightened by the silky varnish and those perfectly lined up screw slots. What I found was something different. Amid the skill and collective conviction radiating throughout the grounds of Mystic Seaport, I found inspiration and confidence. Next fall, as I sharpen my plane blades and chisels and set to work, these qualities of mind will be among my sharpest tools. They will lead me toward understanding the how of it — and then the work will be easy.

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This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.