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Chasing perfection with a little patience

Her name is Patience because that's what it took to build her

In the history of human artifacts, objects both of utility and beauty, we can invariably trace a development from a primitive original to a point at which an idea is brought to such perfection that any alteration in the design seems not an advance, but a retrogression.

Her name is Patience bacause that's what it took to build her. Bill Mills and Ben Philbrick took their time with this Lambert's Cove 21, painting every faying surface and every fastening before installation.

Take, for instance, the form of the letters you are now reading. Since the invention of the alphabet by the Phoenicians — who were also the first great seamen — these letters slowly evolved from primitive scratches on clay shards and rocks. Three years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, they suddenly took on the form of the letters we read today; and they have scarcely changed in the past half-millennium.

Just so it is with the boat, that is, a device made to float one across a body of water, a stream, river or ocean. The first such object was probably an inflatable: the stomach of a pig or sheep, filled with air, to ford a creek. Later came the dug-out canoe and then perhaps the coracle, made of skins stretched over a frame of saplings. Small boats such as these were still in use until not very long ago — and in some parts of the world still are.

The Mediterranean peoples developed the oared galley, such as the famous penteconter of the Greeks. These were the first auxiliary yachts, being powered by both sail and — in the absence of wind — by slaves or freemen, depending on where one lived. The Barbary pirates still used slave galleys into the beginning of the 19th century when they were suppressed in one of the first actions of the American Navy, on “the shores of Tripoli.”

The Vikings adopted this type of ship to the Atlantic, and then later came the great ships of the Europeans that could weather that dangerous and stormy body of water, and sail down the Roaring 40s to all the corners of the world. Then came the beautiful schooners and clipper ships of the 1800s; and then — to make a long story short — with the advent of steam and the decline of working sail, came Nathanael Herreshoff, a steam engineer by training, and his contemporaries, who brought the small boat to such a point of perfection that for almost a hundred years now, no further advance has seemed possible.

And then came Joel White, John Gardner, and several other small-boat builders, designers and aficionados, and now finally have come Bill Mills and Ben Philbrick who have set up shop in the lovely seaside town of Stonington, Conn., with the sole purpose of building new wooden boats in this tradition of perfection: boats that, as Mills says, both “look good and sail well … anything else, why bother?”

And in Jane Schaefer they have found an ideal first client. The Lambert’s Cove 21 Patience is the happy result of the collaboration of this trio.

Two boat-minded guys

Mills’ life in boats began at a young age in the boatyards in and around his native Rowayton, Conn. Moving to Eastern Connecticut in 1974, he worked first at Mystic Wharf, which was later absorbed by the adjacent Mystic Shipyard, and then in 1980 he took a position in the Small Boat Shop at Mystic Seaport, assisting John Gardner as an instructor in boatbuilding. Before his death in 1995, Gardner was instrumental in assembling at Mystic Seaport what is now the largest collection of traditional small craft in the world, a synopticon of all types to be used as a practical resource for research.

Ben Philbrick, left, and Bell Mills pursue perfection out of Stonington Boat Works where they specialize in boats that look good and sail well. 'Anything else, why bother?' asks Mills.

“A generous and elevated mind,” English author Samuel Johnson wrote, “is distinguished by nothing more certainly than an eminent degree of curiosity.” Mills says it was curiosity that most distinguished John Gardner; and it is certainly curiosity that distinguishes Bill Mills himself, for in those years — in addition to his own work teaching — Mills also took off the lines of several vessels in the Seaport’s collection, for both lines- and construction-drawings.

By this and continued intense study, he has gained a deep knowledge of and appreciation for the shape of boats and what makes them move well through the water. After five years at the Seaport, he was hired by Dodson Boatyard in Stonington as foreman of the woodworking and paint staff, and he remained with Dodson’s for 20 years, until starting Stonington Boat Works in the autumn of 2004. He has been a consultant for other boatbuilders and restorers, and featured speaker at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, R.I.; the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I.; and the Noank (Conn.) Wooden Boat Society.

Mills had always wanted to build boats, as opposed to restoring and repairing them. When he heard that some space in a new building at Don’s Dock on Lambert’s Cove in Stonington was available, he felt that the time had come. It was a case of, if not now, when? He mentioned his plans to longtime friend Ben Philbrick, and Philbrick replied quietly, as is his manner, “Count me in.”

The stars align

Like Mills, Philbrick had worked in Mystic Seaport’s Small Boat Shop under the tutelage of John Gardner and Barry Thomas during the same period that witnessed a renaissance of interest in traditional small craft. Philbrick’s life in boatbuilding had begun in 1973, helping the late Mace Webster build his catboat, Martha T, in Saunderstown, R.I.

From the Small Boat Shop, he moved a few hundred yards south to the Preservation Shipyard, applying his talents to some of the Seaport’s larger vessels, such as the 1908 wooden passenger steamer Sabino and the 123-foot Gloucester fisherman L.A. Dunton.

In 1980 Philbrick began a long working association with the well-known boatbuilder and writer Ed McClave, which led a few years later to the formation — with Andy Giblin — of McClave, Philbrick & Giblin (MP&G, LLC or, locally, just Ed, Ben and Andy). One of the best in the world, this firm specializes in the thorough, well-planned restorations of classic yachts. When we spoke to him recently, he told us of his own desire to build a new boat, as opposed to restoring an old one. (See Soundings, April 2004)

When Philbrick spoke to Mills of his interest in working together — and with space now available at Don’s Dock — the stars “seemed to be aligning.” Then, at Mills’ farewell party at Dodson’s, when neighbor Jane Isdale Schaefer asked him what his plans were, he replied, “I’m going to go out and build boats on my own.”

When she replied, “I want to be your first customer,” the stars were not only aligning, they had just slipped smoothly into gear.

The perfect client

Jane Isdale Schaefer and her husband Rudie (Rudolph III) both have had boats in their blood since birth. Their fathers were commodores of the Larchmont (N.Y.) Yacht Club, and raced together on Edlu II (now named Black Watch and recently restored by a New York Yacht Club syndicate). Her brother, George (Dooie) Isdale, was recently commodore of that club. Her father-in-law commissioned the 1969 reproduction of the yacht America; her husband was chairman of the Mystic Seaport’s board of directors.

Jane Isdale Schaefer grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., sailing in Blue Jays, Lightnings and Etchells 22s on western Long Island Sound and at Shelter Island, N.Y. As a young woman, she taught sailing at Camp Avalon on Cape Cod in Chatham, Mass. Rudie bought her a Dyer Dhow named Six Pack for 1970s frostbiting in Rye, N.Y., and then a few years later a fiberglass H-12 replica of the Herreshoff 12-1/2-foot class. She currently races Bullseyes (another fiberglass variant of the 12-1/2 ) at the Card Sound Sailing Club at Ocean Reef, Fla., of which she is a past commodore.

By 1995 Isdale Schaefer had sold her H-12 and had been talking with Joel White about a Flatfish, his centerboard version of the Fish-class boat originally designed by Herreshoff for Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club in 1916, itself a larger version of the 12-1/2. Both of the these classic designs came out of Herreshoff’s Alerion, which he had built for his own use in Bermuda in 1912, and then used as a model for the Newport 29 and the Buzzards Bay 25 in 1914. When asked by a customer to make a sister to Alerion, Nat countered with Sadie (1914), a drier boat, slightly beamier than Alerion and with more freeboard forward. The original Alerion is now in the Small Boat collection at Mystic Seaport.

Joel White’s sad and untimely death in 1997 prevented further discussion about a Flatfish, but, by that time, Mills was thinking about setting up shop. Isdale Schaefer had known Mills for 20 years. He had done a good bit of work on two Jarvis Newmans (a 46 and a 32) that the Schaefers had owned over the years, as well as on Magic, the fiberglass H-12. The parameters for a new boat were that it be no more than 23 feet, have adequate room for daysailing with several adults, and yet be able to be easily single-handed.

“Have you sailed a Fish?” asked Mills, who had owned one for years and now owns an L. Francis Herreshoff-designed Rozinante ketch. They then went out sailing on Steve Kingsland’s Shad. (All of the original boats had fish names.) Kingsland, who works at Dodson Boatyard, spent many years restoring his Fish. That sail did it. They decided to take this classic as the starting point for the new boat that Mills and Philbrick would build. Mills drew a set of lines that resulted in final dimensions of 21 feet, 6 inches; loa; 16 feet, 3 inches on the water; with a beam of 7 feet, and draft of 3 feet, and a sail area of about 300 square feet.

The boat becomes

All this had been decided in the winter of 2004-’05, and May 2005 saw the making of the molds. Then the real work began in earnest. The hull of the boat was built upside down, Herreshoff-style, planked over the molds set up on the floor with the steam-bent white-oak frames and plank keel clamped to them. Once planking was completed, the boat was then turned over with slings and set upright for decking and completion.

Originally, the idea had been for a plain paint job, without much varnish. “Not one of those fancy yachty things,” as Steve Kingsland says, “Something you wouldn’t mind wearing hobnailed boots aboard.”

It started with the transom and rudder, which were to be of teak, selected for its stability and durability, but it seemed such a shame to paint it. Of course, the boat would have to have a bright transom. But then, wouldn’t it likewise be a shame to paint the teak cockpit coamings and toe rail? So then these would have to be bright as well.

As is usual in a finely built wooden yacht, each species of wood was carefully selected for its suitability to the role it plays in the overall structure of the boat. Her planking is Atlantic white cedar for its lightness and stiffness, except her garboards, which are cypress for its resistance to rot and ability to take fastenings at the critical floor-to-frame juncture. The sheer strakes are Honduran mahogany, selected for its ability to likewise hold fastenings. Her deck is tongue-and-groove cedar, canvas covered, and the bulkheads and benches are painted a color that Isdale Schaefer calls “Key Largo tan” in remembrance of their winter hideaway. Her topsides are the subtle Seattle grey.

Spars are select Douglas fir and all fastenings are silicon bronze. Hull, Mass.-based J.M. Reineck & Son cast the bronze blocks; Mills fabricated additional hardware in the shop. (In addition to his yacht repair work, he has also made custom hardware for numerous construction and restoration projects.) Patience’s sails are by Nat Wilson of Nathaniel Wilson Sailmaker of East Boothbay, Maine, another longtime Fish-class owner.

Her name is Patience because, as Isdale Schaefer says, that’s what it took to build her. But while Herreshoff built small boats on a production-line basis, Mills and Philbrick took their time, and in the long run it should pay. They painted every faying surface (that is, all surfaces that come into contact with one another) before assembly, and every fastening likewise has been coated before installation. Here, their combined 60 years of experience in maintaining and restoring Herreshoffs and other classic wooden boats has taught them where the weak points are — where a structure is likely to fail — and how to use the best materials and methods to achieve a perdurable product that will last much longer than the original boats.

It might be said here that the original boats that Herreshoff built were not meant to last 90 years — nine would have been more like it. Nor did Mozart expect that “Don Giovanni” or “The Magic Flute” would still be staged today more than 200 years after their first performances, and that they would become classics. Like Mozart, Nat was always looking forward to the next thing. His refusal to create a sister to his Alerion for a member of Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club is a case in point. He wanted to make a better Alerion, slightly beamier, and with a little more flare forward. The fact that his designs have turned out to be classics, and have endured long past their intended life spans, is not the fault of their construction, but a testament to the brilliance of their conception.

The pursuit of perfection

Isdale Schaefer says she enjoyed the whole process immensely. In fact, she enjoyed it so much she decided to build herself a tender: Joel White’s 7-foot Nutshell Pram. This she did alongside Patience in the Stonington Boat Works shop, with Mills and Philbrick’s help; but first Mills — ever the teacher — had her build a workbench to hone her woodworking skills. Patience was launched June 1, 2006, and christened July 11. Her tender was launched July 7, and, lately, when Isdale Schaefer is not out sailing on Patience, she’s in the shop reshaping a pair of oars on her bench.

Mills and Philbrick are now working on building spars for Spartan — the 72-foot gaff-rigged Herreshoff-built New York 50 that is being restored for new owners Victor Paul and Charles Myers by a consortium of local boatbuilders and restorers led by MP&G — as well as thinking about the next new boat that will look good, smell good, sound good and sail well.

In an age of plastic, there yet remains the love of the beauty of wood; in an age when boats seem “built by the yard and cut off by the foot,” there yet remains the desire for the custom, the bespoke: the result of a collaboration that is a conversation between intelligent and informed clients and passionate and masterful builders where the focus is not on how cheap or how fast, but on the pursuit of perfection.

Contact Stonington Boat Works, LLC, at 228 North Water St., Unit B, Stonington, CT 06378. They can be reached at (860) 535-0332.

Editor’s note: In summer 2007 Philbrick decided to take a sabbatical to pursue interests in alternative energy, though he is still consulting, says Mills. Stonington Boat Works’ newest associate is Emery Jackson, a 23-year-old graduate of the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport , R.I.

This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.