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Moving history forward

Harold Burnham’s passion for wooden boats keeps a tradition alive

The craft and culture of building and sailing traditional wooden boats is embedded in the life and work of master shipwright and charter captain Harold Burnham, and in his passion for what is a dying way of life in his hometown of Essex, Mass.

Room with a view of the H.A. Burnham yard in Essex, Mass.

“The culture here is maritime-based — based on trade and fishing,” says Burnham, 46, an 11th-generation boatbuilder and winner of a 2012 National Heritage Fellowship for his work to preserve Essex’s boatbuilding tradition. “Today that maritime culture is disappearing quickly. Any way we can hold on to it is important.”

You wouldn’t have suspected that culture was endangered on July 9, 2011, when the schooner Ardelle slipped down the ways of the H.A. Burnham yard to the cheers of 2,000 spectators — many of them friends who had helped Burnham build the boat. They pitched in not for a paycheck but for the sheer joy of helping a friend, learning something about wooden boatbuilding and seeing a traditional Essex schooner splash in the Essex River again.

“Harold is an amazing, amazing teacher,” says Zachary Teal, who at age 15 was the youngest volunteer to sign up to build Ardelle. “He is very patient.” And very passionate about building boats the way they used to be built in Essex.



Now a freshman at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Teal became one of Burnham’s most dedicated apprentices and workers, and he helps crew aboard Ardelle in the summer when she carries passengers on day cruises out of Gloucester, Mass. The year Teal spent building Ardelle has left an indelible mark on the young man.

“I know now that if you really want to do something, you’ve got to work hard and bust your ass to get stuff done,” he says. “Harold really showed me that.”

Teal’s career goal is to be a tug captain, but there’s absolutely no doubt in his mind that he’ll build more boats. He says no one works with Burnham without his passion for boatbuilding rubbing off. And no one who worked on Ardelle will soon forget the spirit of “pulling together to make this happen” that kept the project in overdrive. Now when he takes Ardelle’s helm, he says, “knowing that your blood, sweat and tears went into it is a really cool thing. It’s been a pretty special experience.”

Two decades ago, there may have been two or three people who knew how to build an Essex schooner. Burnham picked their brains, opened his yard and started building schooners with the help of friends and like-minded folk who wanted to keep the Essex tradition alive. “Now that he’s built all these boats, hundreds of people know about how these heavy-construction Essex schooners are built,” Teal says.

It’s Burnham’s way of preserving his heritage: getting as many people as he can engaged in designing, building, launching and sailing traditional wooden schooners. Burnham has built six wooden boats over 23 years:

• Kim, a 22-foot sloop launched in 1990 that he built for himself to take passengers on lobster charters

• Tom Ellis’ Thomas E. Lannon, a twin-masted 65-foot Fredonia-style fishing schooner launched in 1997 for charter out of Gloucester

• the Lewis H. Story, a 30-foot, two-masted Chebacco fishing schooner launched in 1998 as the flagship of the Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum

• Fame of Salem, a 50-foot Chebacco fishing schooner launched in 2003 as a replica of a fishboat converted for use as a privateer in the War of 1812, now chartering out of Salem, Mass.

• Isabella, a representation of a mid-1800s 38-foot two-masted fishing schooner launched in 2006 for owner William Green, who cruises on it

• Ardelle, Burnham’s 49-passenger, two-masted 58-foot Pinky fishing schooner, launched in 2011 and also chartering out of Gloucester

Ardelle’s launch has breathed new life into Burnham’s vision of making a living while preserving and passing on to younger generations the knowledge and skills that belong not just to him, but also to the town of 3,500 that his family helped settle in the 1600s. Six boats built in 23 years does not support a family or send kids to college. Ardelle, which sails out of the Gloucester Maritime Center, helps pay the bills now.

A graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Burnham spent six years in the merchant marine on tankers and freighters, and built traditional boats in his spare time when he was home. After marrying and starting a family — son Alden and daughter Perry — Burnham gave up seafaring to build boats full time, his passion. It was never very profitable, so he skippered charterboats to make ends meet.

Harold Burnham

Conceived, as Burnham tells it, out of economic necessity, Ardelle came down the ways at the Burnham yard after a six-year dry spell of no schooner orders at Essex’s only surviving full-time shipyard. He had been gathering timber and building supplies for his next order, which never came, so he built his own boat. Burnham doesn’t blame this state of affairs on the economy; there’s just not a lot of demand for wooden schooners.

“How long can we hold out?” he asked in an article he wrote for WoodenBoat magazine last spring. Burnham figures that chartering Ardelle will help him keep going.

“The shipbuilding business, though rewarding in many, many, many ways, was never going to be sustainable,” he says. “By running the shipbuilding and charter businesses together, one hand feeds the other. It’s working out pretty well.”

Ardelle is a hands-on advertisement for his boatbuilding business. “The idea is to get people out on the water and involved with these indigenous craft, and enjoying them,” he says. “You grow the demand for sailing on them. As demand for use of the vessels increases, demand for the vessels themselves will increase.”

The types of boats he likes to build are representations of the small fishing schooners that once worked New England waters and that capture the imagination of those who see them under sail. Burnham can’t imagine not building these boats. “It’s something I enjoy doing,” he says. “I’m good at it. I love building boats, but I like to get paid doing it, too.”

Besides improving cash flow, Ardelle immerses its passengers in the history of a region whose way of life has been rooted for centuries in building and working wooden boats.

A Burnham reputedly built Essex’s first boat, in the mid-1600s, on an acre of land that the town fathers set aside along the Essex River for boatbuilding. Essex became a hub for building, its yards turning out a boat a week in the mid-19th century — one of every seven sailboats built in America at the time. Its craftsmen produced 4,000 boats over 400 years, supplying Gloucester with schooners to fuel its growth as a major fishing port.

“Essex and Gloucester have always been tied together,” Burnham says. “Gloucester has an absolutely beautiful harbor. Essex had access to great timber.”

Steve Willard caulks the schooner Ardelle.

Essex lies along a marshy tidal river that is navigable maybe three or four hours a day. “The river made it too difficult for Essex to maintain its status as a fishing port, so it went into building boats, which employed an enormous part of the work force of the time,” he says. After World War II, steel and then fiberglass replaced wood as the hull material of choice, and as fishing declined, wooden boatbuilding in Essex fell on hard times.

By the time Burnham came along, boatbuilding was virtually extinct in Essex, but he was determined to learn all he could about it. He hung around the town’s surviving boatyards, read books written by old-timers such as Dana Story (“Growing Up in a Shipyard”), and studied historic paintings, photographs and drawings to learn about the design and construction of Essex’s traditional boats. Even today, Burnham says, he never steps aboard a wooden boat without inspecting it carefully to see how it was built.

The Storys were Burnham’s mentors — links to Essex’s past who shared their knowledge and passion for wooden boats. Dana Story, whose family had built schooners in Essex since 1870, closed his shipyard in 1948 to open a yacht service yard; his son Brad continued to build, but he turned his considerable talent to building yachts, skiffs and lobster boats of wood and composites — 52 in all. He is now an accomplished sculptor, in wood and fiberglass.

“I was always walking through Brad’s yard as a kid,” Burnham says. “Growing up in his shipyard helped get me started in boatbuilding.”

He also watched his father, Charles — a physicist who helped develop nuclear medicine imagers — build small wooden boats in their backyard. As a child, Burnham teamed with siblings to build dories and rowboats under their father’s watchful eye and sold the boats to bankroll their next project. By high school he was handcrafting small wooden sailboats and selling them — and setting his sights on bigger builds.

Today Burnham designs the schooners he builds, mills the wood (usually white oak and locust) in his own sawmill, carves the half-model, lofts the boat from the half-model, builds the boat using traditional tools (or modern ones where it makes sense), builds the mast, makes the sails, rigs the boat and installs the engine. “I’ve been very fortunate to have lived a life that has allowed me to experience many, many aspects of boat construction,” he says.

Burnham’s particular passion is for the sturdy “heavy-construction” Essex schooner or the “Pinky,” a double-ended two-master whose deck extends aft over the rudder. Its frames aren’t bent but double-sawn — that is, cut to the shape of the boat with two or more pieces butted together and paired with a second frame similarly cut, but with the joints at different places to reinforce and strengthen the other. The planks are fastened with wooden nails called trunnels that Burnham makes. The hull will rot before the fastenings do.

Ardelle receives some finishing touches before the deck is laid.

“Wooden fastenings will last indefinitely,” he says. “There are only a couple of people left who use trunnels. Since I started building boats, hundreds of people have witnessed [how to drive a trunnel], and many have done it firsthand. The skills must be kept alive. If they disappear, that will be the end of them.”

The Burnham children, Alden and Perry, grew up in a house on the Essex River next door to the barn, with its weathered wood-planked and shake-shingled siding, that serves as Burnham’s shop. Both of them helped to build Ardelle. Alden crews on her in the summer. Perry has crewed, too, but works now more in marketing in the business office.

“We lived in the boatyard,” says Alden, a history major at Boston University who attributes his own interest in history to his father’s immersion in the history of Essex. He wants to become a teacher.

“Once a day I’d have to come out in the yard to see what he was doing,” Alden says. “I’d do it grudgingly, but I’m very grateful for it.”

It was Burnham’s way of introducing the Essex boatbuilding tradition to his children.

“My dad is an incredible historian,” Alden says. “He knows so much about the period.” Some people read about history in a textbook, Alden says. His father lives history, recites history and preserves history. Burnham is an honorary board member of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum and a frequent lecturer there and at boatbuilding shops.

Alden says his father has been a good friend to many in and around Essex, the barn-raisings of old, when it came to building Ardelle, as with one good turn deserved another.

The schooner Ardelle sails daily from May through October out of the Gloucester Maritime Center, offering special music cruises, date-night cruises and private charters, as well as educational cruises.

“It’s better to have friends than money,” he says. “My dad does have a lot of friends that came down to help him build this boat.” He gives much of the credit for Ardelle to them.

“When I started it, I was slowly going broke,” Burnham says. All of his funds were tied up in supplies for the order that never came in. “I put out the word that I could use some help. This was a community effort.”

Burnham made sure everyone who worked ate hearty and well. That was their pay. Perry, who helped caulk Isabella for $10 an hour when she was 9 years old, says working on Ardelle was great fun. She caulked, set screws, greased the way, cooked big lunches and dinners for the work crews.

“You get close to all these people who come to the yard and work on the boat,” she says. “I was really sad and cried when we launched Ardelle. I’ve missed them.”

Perry plans to go on to college, get a business degree and help grow the family business. It’s in her blood.

Like Teal, she and Alden say their father’s passion for building traditional wooden boats and his perseverance in keeping the culture and craft of Essex boatbuilding alive are infectious. Burnham always has advised his children to follow their passion.

They say they are. “He’s still following his,” Alden says.

Dan Tobyne photos

More information is available at

More on the H.A. Burnham yard and its services can ve found at

See related article:

- A magical boatyard

April 2014 issue