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Down East stories from a Down East builder

Ralph Stanley, known for his Friendship sloops and lobster boats, recalls a life that’s been pure Maine

Ralph Stanley, known for his Friendship sloops and lobster boats, recalls a life that’s been pure Maine

Master designer and boatbuilder Ralph W. Stanley plays the fiddle behind his Southwest Harbor home, which overlooks the water where some of his finest creations lay peacefully afloat shrouded in Maine fog.

At 75, Stanley is excited about his new book, aptly titled “Ralph Stanley — Tales of a Maine Boatbuilder.” Published last year by Down East Books, its essence is pure Maine — a look into the life and times of one of its own, unveiled through colorful stories that Stanley personally experienced or ones he overheard at the barbershop and filling station. The 160-page volume, with more than 100 black-and-white photographs, is the result of a collaboration with photojournalist Craig Milner of Worcester, Mass., who over the years captured Stanley’s projects on film and later transcribed a series of recorded interviews.

When Soundings visited Stanley at his modest home and shop on Clarke Point Road last summer, he shared his enthusiasm for quality boatbuilding and revealed plans for the next collection of stories.

“When people first heard I was writing a book, some of them looked concerned,” he says, flashing a trademark wry smile. “Some years back there was a man from Southwest Harbor who said he was writing a book, and just like now, most people were worried that he might reveal some of their secrets. But he died, and the book never came out.”

These days, Stanley spends less time designing beautiful sailboats and sturdy lobster boats, and most of his energy giving talks at the regional historical societies where his expertise is in demand. He is director of the Penobscot Marine Museum, and he’s making notes and crafting stories for the follow-up book — more tales about his quintessentially Down East life.

“The stories are mostly about life in general in Southwest Harbor, only I have to change the names to protect the guilty,” he says with an air of innocent mischief. “These are stories about people I knew, and some that I heard growing up, hanging around the barbershop or the filling station or the fish wharf.”

Chapters encompass a wide range of topics, including boat design and construction, the merits of wood over fiberglass, and a 1995 adventure in Sardinia, where Stanley went to help launch the Friendship sloop that bears his name. That story is poignant in that it required that he fly in an airplane for the first time. Readers also are treated to Stanley’s thoughts on specific boats and clients, summer people, a 1999 trip to Washington to receive a National Heritage Fellowship presented by President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary, and reflections on life, love, family and work ethics.

Stanley says storytelling came as naturally as his ability to shape raw wood into objects of beauty, albeit a lobster boat with clean and classic lines, or a Friendship sloop with dramatic sheer and intricately carved figurehead. He has never formally studied drafting, drawing or naval architecture — with the exception of Albert Barlow, a high school shop teacher who taught woodworking — yet builders everywhere admire his boats.

It was the same way with his musical abilities — self-taught. Stanley still plays the fiddle in a band “with a bunch of the boys around here, just for the fun of it,” he says.

Stanley’s passion for drawing boats surfaced early. His great-grandmother’s sister, Alice Gilley, smoked a pipe, spoke her mind and liked the boy’s artwork enough to encourage him. His maternal grandmother, Celestia (Dix) Robinson, filled him with stories about his ancestors, and, of course, the tales always involved boats.

“There were still Friendships fishing here when I was a boy, and lots of lobster boats,” says Stanley, whose New World ancestors hail from Marblehead, Mass. “I’d spend hours studying the shapes of them. And I also hung around the fish wharf, which is where people would gather to tell stories, and I got plenty of them stuck in my head. In those days, if you didn’t make a nuisance of yourself, they let you hang around.”

The pace of life in Southwest Harbor remains relatively slow, but when Stanley was growing up it was even pokier, and people seemed to have more time for each other. “There were three barbershops back then,” he says. “Lots of the old fellows came up three times a week to get a face wash and a shave, and they’d tell stories the whole time.”

After graduating from high school Stanley attended Ricker Junior College in Houlton, Maine. He hadn’t a clue about what he might do with the rest of his life, so he majored in liberal arts. The nights were cold in northern Maine, prompting Stanley to spend them in the town library, which is where he discovered Sprague’s Journals of Maine History and began his interest in the subject. Imbued with scholarly intent but without money enough to pursue an advanced degree, he returned to Southwest Harbor and started building boats. He also helped his great-uncle Lew Stanley, who sailed yachts for wealthy summer folk, and that left him with cash to purchase boatbuilding materials.

“I’d been around the boatyards long enough to know how to use a hammer and chisel,” says Stanley. “I knew a few things about carpentry, and I had a feel about how a boat should look. I really can’t explain it, but I just knew.”

Some of his know-how was acquired as a boy, although he wasn’t conscious of it. In his chapter on design Stanley recalls building toy boats, floating them in ponds and studying how they moved through the water. He was already gaining experience. “When you sail one of your own boats and see how it handles, that influences the next one you’re going to design,” he writes.

It was 1950 when he began working on his first creation: a 28-foot lobster boat. It turned into a two-year project. “I planked her up in my grandfather’s old paint shop and learned how to do it as I went along,” says Stanley, noting some of the wood had been salvaged from the 1947 fire that ravaged Mount Desert Island and still bore singe marks. “When I finished I thought to myself, I don’t think I could ever do another one. Then I got TB [tuberculosis], and the boat was sold and I spent a year in a sanatorium.”

Again back in Southwest Harbor, he returned to building boats. In 1956 he married his first love, Marion Linscott, and settled into a routine that would dominate his days for decades to come. Commissions trickled in, including a few key ones from “summer people,” and over time, Stanley’s reputation grew so that he no longer had to seek employment.

In 1962 Stanley built his first Friendship sloop, a commission from Albie Nelson, who still sails the 33-footer, Hieronymus, along the Maine coast. Stanley’s work and passion had become one. Another of Stanley’s Friendships, the 1977 26-foot Peregrine, is for sale in Southwest Harbor, but the builder cautions prospective buyers that wooden boats of this size and style require costly maintenance.

“Keeping up a Friendship is expensive and a lot of work,” says Stanley. “But they’re beautiful boats, and part of that is because of the way the mast is set forward.” His rule of thumb on Friendship mast placement is 1/5 the length of the boat from the bow — versus a cutter, which has its mast stepped farther aft.

The master’s past apprentices number more than two dozen. These craftsmen are part of Stanley’s legacy, as are the Friendship sloops Endeavor, Freedom and Dovekie, the little schooner Equinox, the English cutter Resolute, and such lobster boats as the 38-foot Calvin M, built in 1981.

“When I was in high school one of the teachers told me to get out of this one-horse town, to go work for a big company and makes lots of money,” he says. “Well, I had plenty of friends who did just that, and when they retired, they died off quick.”

Stanley, on the other hand, appears unruffled, taking life in stride, although he suffered a heart attack in 1999 and required quadruple-bypass surgery. He chuckles at the sight of racing sailors in matching foul-weather gear aboard high-tech boats, trying their best to go around a set of marks or from one port to another at top speed. He tells a story about one such boat that ran aground while going full tilt through a narrow passage near Placentia Island.

“The boat had this great big wheel, and of course they had the spinnaker up, and all of a sudden everything came to a halt and you could see the people scrambling about,” he says, recalling how his wife wondered aloud what they might do to help. “But there wasn’t much we could do. They were just going to have to wait for the tide.”

The son of a fisherman, Stanley suggests people take it easy on the water. “With these modern boats, people are hanging over the side, shouting back and forth. They just don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves,” he says. “You’re supposed to have fun out there. Take your time and get a look at the scenery.”

While Stanley, a father of four, has temporarily set down his adz, his son Richard continues to build a Friendship sloop behind the boat shop, its skeleton visible beneath a tarp. His son Edward also designs boats. Daughters Marjorie and Nadine remain part of the family life, Nadine doing the bookkeeping at the small boatyard office.

Out behind the office a new wooden lobster boat is being constructed under Stanley’s watchful eye. Like his other commercial boats — especially Seven Girls, the lobster boat he built for his father in the 1960s, which is named in honor of his sisters — it’ll be strong, seaworthy and strikingly graceful.

On a piece of scrap paper, Stanley draws a diagram to show how his frames meet the keel in a way that makes a sturdier boat.

“My boats are built down,” he says, illustrating how the rabbet joins the keel close to the frames, rather than allowing the keel to hang down lower and perhaps weaken with age from constant water pressure. “I can’t build out of glass because you’ve got to have a mold. Glass is strong, but every boat I build, I see something I want to change. I couldn’t do that if I was locked into a mold.”