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WoodenBoat Show draws varied fleet

The Japanese Tub Boat was among the designs on display at the show, held this year in Mystic

The Japanese Tub Boat was among the designs on display at the show, held this year in Mystic

The Tub Boat was not the most impressive of the 48 vessels in the 16th

Read the other story in this package: Teen’s Herreshoff replica draws a crowd

annual WoodenBoat Show in Mystic. But it certainly had an interesting story and was an example of the variety of vessels on display at the popular show.

At only 5 feet, 2 inches with a 4-foot beam the design has an integral place in Japanese culture and history, according to its Vermont creator, Douglas Brooks.

In 1990 Brooks never thought he would find himself in Japan. But there he was on SadoIsland, waiting for his ship — or Tub Boat — to come in, due to a college buddy from Hiroshima and a free plane ticket.

“Ten years after we graduated, he had gone back to Japan, and I was working at the MaritimeMuseum in San Francisco. I left that job, and he sent me a plane ticket to come visit him,” says Brooks. “I saw these boats that these people were fishing in and I thought, ‘What the heck are these?’ I asked around and found out that a Mr. Koichi Fujii made them.”

Brooks was fascinated by these strange craft that people rowed from the front, made of the most basic of materials: Japanese cedar (called sugi) held together with braided bamboo rods. He returned to Sado a few years later with an interpreter and, after much discussion, Fujii agreed to pass on the secrets of the trade.

“Japan is so focused on the future that very little time and attention is being paid to preserving its past,” says Brooks. “In 1996, on my fourth trip, I apprenticed with Fujii and I built my first Tub Boat.”

Today, these boats (also called Taraibune) are only found in six small fishing villages on Sado Island, and have survived because of their low cost and durability. After Fujii’s death in 1999, Brooks began working with the Kodo Cultural Foundation of Japan to document his research and train others on making these unique craft, and in 2003 Kodo published, “The Tub Boats of Sado Island; A Japanese Craftsman’s Methods.”

The boat at the show was built by Brooks in 2001; the only one he has made in America. To operate it, one stands up in the boat holding the paddle straight down, moving it in a scrolling motion. The bottom is flat and slightly concave in order to maneuver over the sharp volcanic rock often found in Sado that would tear up the hull of a conventional boat.

“Many women use these, and you can use it for a day or a weekend and then take it right out of the water,” says Brooks. “Docks are very rare in Japan because of limited space.”

Since the WoodenBoat Show debuted in 1990, the purpose has been to display variety and skill. So it seemed appropriate to hold it in a town with such extensive boating history as Mystic. Organizers report more than 13,000 people visited the show and its 152 exhibitors, including some 200 boats.

“This is the first time we’ve been back here since 2001,” says Carl Cramer, publisher of WoodenBoat magazine and mastermind behind the event. “This is its rightful home. It’s like coming to Bethlehem.”

This was the fourth year the show has come to Mystic, having made previous stops in Newport, R.I., Rockland, Mass., South Haven, Mich., St. Michaels, Md., and Southwest Harbor, Maine.

“The difference with Mystic is when you take the show away, you still have a great facility and a living museum,” says Cramer.

Over the years, Cramer says, they have tried to cultivate a festive atmosphere, providing something for everyone. For instance, one tent had a boatbuilding workshop for kids, where they had the opportunity to build and launch their vessels.

The show also held a tribute to boat designer Phil Bolger on June 29, who at 79 has designed 700 boats dating back to the 1930s. One of his designs on display included Queen Mab, a 7-foot sailboat (32-inch beam) with plywood frames, teak deck, and mahogany coaming. Mystic local Peter Fenn was in the process of building a Phil Bolger design named Teal, a 17-foot flat-bottom double-ended sailboat vessel built out of marine plywood.

“After it sets sail, we’ll auction it off for charity at the Race Rock Regatta in Mystic in September,” says Fenn. “It’s really just for fun; 5 knots is about as fast as it can go.”

Fenn said after a career in renovating historic houses, he decided boats were the way to go.

“I got tired of taking apart old, dirty houses,” says Fenn. “Now I just take apart old, dirty boats.”

Cramer says he loves how the show has become more about education, not about the sales and vendors.

“We get people here anywhere from 16 to 77,” he says. “Many of those kids in the boatbuilding tent have never done this before, and it’s an accessible way to introduce people to all different aspects of boating.”