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Launch makes use of grease and gravity

There’s something about the traditional launch of a boat sliding down the ways toward its first splash of water that attracts a crowd.

There’s something about the traditional launch of a boat sliding down the ways toward its first splash of water that attracts a crowd.

Boatbuilder Harold Burnham drew an audience of some 3,000 to the banks of his Massachusetts shop Aug. 13 when he slid a 38-foot, 40,000-pound traditional 19th-century schooner into the Essex River.

The vessel was commissioned by William Greene in South Dartmouth, Mass., who named it Isabella.

The 28th shipbuilder in his family (11th generation), Burnham used side-launching techniques without modern hydraulics and equipment. He is one of the few boatbuilders in North America to still do so.

“Launching a boat is always careful business and you want to make sure you never put anyone at risk,” says Burnham. “The next concern is getting the boat in the water. The angles that the boat lays over on and how the ways are all lined up creates the path the boat will follow.”

The launch went perfectly.

“Landing on her side, the water reached the edge of her gunwales but did not come on deck except through the deck drains on the starboard side,” says Greene. “Then she bounced aright, rolled once or twice and then sat there calm and smooth like the lady she is.”

Greene says he had the ship designed as a distinctive pleasure boat to share his passion for sailing.

Since 1819 the Burnham family name has been synonymous with Essex, Mass., the birthplace of around 4,000 schooners. Keeping with tradition, Burnham Boatbuilding and Design continues to use a holistic approach to vessel design, construction and operation.

Harold Burnham first revived old Essex shipbuilding techniques in 1996-’97 to create Thomas E. Lannon, a 65-foot Fredonia style fishing schooner. Isabella is the fourth schooner built by Burnham’s team, preceded by the chebacco boat Lewis H. Story and the privateer Fame.

The 38-foot, two-masted Isabella incorporates a sawn-frame and trunnel-fastened construction. Isabella has a full 24-inch aft bulwark and a raised fo’c’sle to maximize living quarters.

The boat’s lines are based on those of the mid-19th century, particularly the paintings of Fitz H. Lane.

“There is no sense owning a boat unless you love it — and the boats Harold Burnham builds are easy to love,” says Greene.

Burnham first began work on Isabella after receiving a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council designed to preserve cultural heritage — in this case, shipbuilding. Burnham, along with more than a dozen-man crew, assumes all traditional roles: master boat designer, sawyer, shipwright and sailmaker.

The preliminary drawing and cost estimates began in September 2005. The 11-month, six-day-a-week building process started as a drawing on the floor of a second-story barn loft. The ship took shape from the ground up, literally. Tree trunks were delivered and Burnham began his work as a sawyer, looking at shape, grain, and the size of each log. The keel began as 6,000 pounds of lead. Tree trunks transformed into masts and a sternpost.

The first major milestone of the Isabella, the laying of the keel, was done Nov. 12 and attracted more than 100 people to the shipyard. Raising the frame was the next traditional aspect. “Frame up” was echoed as the crew lifted the large, heavy, U-shaped frame onto the keel.

Sticking to a rigid work schedule, by the end of 2005 the keel, stem and frames were together; the masts made, and planking boards, bronze rods and transom planks were in stock.

Early 2006 brought flooding to the Essex River, a tidal river. The river rose 2 feet to just beneath Isabella’s keel. Despite the challenges, work continued: rigging, planking, dubbing (or smoothing) the frames, spiling, staging and caulking.

While planking, a 55-gallon drum full of water was mounted on top of a burn barrel. The temperature increased with wood scraps fueling the fire and a leaf blower that pumped in oxygen. The resulting steam was connected to the steam box by a hose. The planks were then placed in the box for about two hours before they were ready to be bent to the frames and fastened.

“Except for the high-tech leaf blower, this is the same process used for the past 350 years in Essex,” educator and shipbuilding enthusiast Randall Robar wrote in an online construction log of the Isabella. The leaf blower along with epoxy and fiberglass were just a few of the modern-day concessions used for financial and safety reasons.

Owner William Greene says he visited the shipyard every week throughout construction. In the final months Greene’s son, Leo Maker Greene, took a three-month leave of absence from his career to work on the boat, getting a broad education in wooden boat building in the process.

Burnham’s adapted traditional greased-skid launch enabled Isabella to ease into the water with the helpful grace of grease, gravity and momentum.

After she was rigged, Isabella sailed out of the Essex River with many of the construction crewmembers, and visited the nearby ports of Gloucester, Marblehead and Salem. Then Greene sailed his little ship to its ultimate destination in Buzzards Bay to begin sharing his passion for sailing with his nine children and 13 grandchildren.

“I hope to take them all on many a fine passage,” says Greene. ;