Walking the Plank: Jon Wilson

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It is by now the stuff of legend: Jon Wilson founded WoodenBoat Publications in September 1974 with the first issue of WoodenBoat magazine, which he published from his cabin — without electricity or running water — in North Brooksville, Maine.

Photo by Benjamin Mendlowitz

Wilson took the inaugural issue to the Newport (Rhode Island) International Boat Show, where he sold 400 copies and signed up 200 subscribers. More than 40 years later, the business has grown a bit. WoodenBoat has a circulation of approximately 100,000; a book-publishing arm; a boatbuilding and maritime arts school; another magazine, Professional BoatBuilder; and the annual WoodenBoat Show, held in recent years at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. It’s hard to overestimate what this one man has done to revivify the traditions and skills of wooden boatbuilding. But Wilson is not a man to rest on his laurels. These days he divides his time between WoodenBoat and his national nonprofit, JUST Alternatives, an organization that fosters face-to-face dialogue between victims of violent crime and their incarcerated offenders. Wilson generously shared with us how his own boat obsessions got started.

First memory of being on a boat: The Thimble Islands ferry Volsunga, a 32-foot double-ender carrying island residents from the public dock in Stony Creek, Connecticut, under the inspiring and gifted hand of Capt. Dick Howd. The first sailboat was a Cape Cod 18 Knockabout, on Salt Pond in Wakefield, Rhode Island. And oar-powered, the family’s big old flat-bottom skiff in Stony Creek. I could barely get it moving when I was little. Their common elements were planks, frames, paint, varnish and soul — the foundation of my relationship with wooden boats.

First boat you owned: The old ferry Volsunga, bought for $300 from Howd after he took her out of service. Built in 1910, she was way more boat than I could properly care for as a 1960s teenager. More manageable was a Charles Wittholz-designed Flying Finn 17-foot lapstrake runabout, rebuilt with the highly skilled guidance and help of Jim Curry, a mentor and co-worker at Dutch Wharf Boat Yard in Branford, Connecticut.

In general, power or sail? Yes!

Last or current boat: Currently, Free Spirit, a Concordia 33, the “first draft” for what later evolved into the fabled Concordia yawl. Also, Riverbird, a tarted-up 22-foot 1967 Chris-Craft Cutlass runabout adapted for picnicking and overnight cruising.

Favorite boat you’ve owned: Free Spirit. I’ve owned her for 33 years.

Your dream boat: A 55-foot wooden ketch-rigged motorsailer combining the design genius of Aage Nielsen, Philip Rhodes and Olin Stephens.

Most rewarding professional experience: Starting WoodenBoat magazine and The WoodenBoat School.

Scariest adventure aboard: The time I close-encountered another boat in heavy winds and thick fog. She had been sailing a reciprocal course toward the very same sea buoy we were, and sounding no horn signals at all. We had no radar in those days. I can still taste the sudden shot of adrenaline.

Most memorable experience aboard: Sailing home to Maine from Newport, Rhode Island, and running before the lightest breeze over Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts Bay at about midnight. Hearing strange sounds coming from below, we stuck our heads in the companionway to hear a jaw-dropping chorus of whale songs reverberating through the hull planking.

Longest time you’ve spent aboard: Six weeks aboard the Baltimore Clipper schooner Pride of Baltimore II, from Spain to the Virgin Islands and up into the Chesapeake Bay under the gifted command of Capt. Jan Miles, who could maneuver the 108-foot vessel with the adroitness of a dinghy sailor.

Favorite destination so far: Almost anywhere between our own Eggemoggin Reach and any island around Merchants Row, off nearby Deer Isle, or making Provincetown’s Race Point at daybreak after crossing the Gulf of Maine overnight.

Place you still want to get to on your own bottom: Cuba. Aboard the motorsailer.

Favorite nautical book: Sou’West and By West of Cape Cod, by Llewellyn Howland — the man behind the creation of the Concordia yawl — about growing up around the waters of New Bedford and South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

Favorite nautical cause you support: Any program that gets kids — urban and rural — into shops where they can learn to build boats and then out on the water in those boats.

Favorite quote about the sea: I have two. One for the pleasant days and one for the ferocious ones:

“Hark now, hear the sailors cry,

 Smell the sea, and feel the sky.

 Let your soul and spirit fly,

Into the mystic.” — Van Morrison

“Thy sea is so great

And my boat is so small.” — Unknown

(often referred to as the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer)

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.