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In the mind’s eye

A study in the craftsmanship and poetry of wood boats

Photos By Craig Milner

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“Ships,” wrote the 20th century Canadian poet Robert Rose, “are the nearest thing to dreams that hands have ever made.”
He might have said the same thing about the boats at the Maine Boatbuilders Show, where even the most jaded visitor soon falls victim to the allure of exquisite craftsmanship.

This annual “gathering of the tribe” brings together builders primarily from Maine and the rest of New England, but also from other parts of the country and the Canadian Maritimes. And the builders are required to be on hand, rather than the sales staff.

From canoes and pulling boats to daysailers, runabouts and cruisers, the boats at the show — held each March in Portland — display that classic combination of old-school beauty and what one observer called an “honesty of purpose.” Indeed, the utility that demands the craftsmanship and inspires the imagination of the builders makes each boat seem all the more wondrous.
And the wonder is in the details, which photographer Craig Milner masterfully captured in these images. Rows of fasteners in seaman-like ranks, evenly spaced, carefully finished off, hold planks together with a beauty and dignity that can’t be matched by a homogeneous maze of unseen glass fibers beneath blank stretches of glaring white gelcoat.
A bronze oarlock secured to the gunwale with a wonderfully knotted lanyard and tucked neatly and properly into a leather holster — L. Francis Herreshoff would approve. Contrast this to the rubber oarlock of today’s inflatable, glued to a puffy tube and holding a plastic paddle. A simple mast collar turned into a little star-shaped work of whimsy not only captures the eye, but also gives the viewer an insight into the character of boat and builder. And the tools — the mallets, planes and clamps, the traditional shapers of dreams into wood and metal — have their own humble and ageless beauty.

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In these details, a visitor sees not one idea molded into the greater object — a boat — for convenience or conformity and replicated thousands of times, but myriad ideas, each different, expressed once by an individual, enhancing the whole by its uniqueness.

The result is a fleet that speaks for the values, heritage and craftsmanship of an entire region and beyond, validating the words of philosopher and yachtsman E.B. White: “If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything. Perhaps a bit better than most.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.