November 20, 2018

State’s long tradition of boat building on full display at festival

The first boat built by English settlers in Maine was the 30-ton pinnace Virginia, constructed in 1607 by the Popham colonists at modern-day Phippsburg. National Folk Festival attendees will be able to see the latest, a 7-foot-7-inch Nutshell pram, being put together by Brooklin boat builders Eric Dow and his daughter Ariel.

The Dows are part of a platoon of boat builders from coastal and inland locations assembled by the Maine Folklife Center to demonstrate the state’s unbroken tradition, which began in prehistory with American Indian canoes and continues today with simple wooden skiffs, ornate fiberglass yachts and a variety of other vessels and materials. Maine boats are as famous as the state’s rugged coastline and wilderness streams, according to Pauleena MacDougall, associate director of the Folklife Center, based at the University of Maine in Orono. The state has a reputation for having many highly skilled builders.

Pleasure boats may be in biggest demand today, but boaters of all kinds know if they have a problem, they can go just about anywhere along the coast and find a skilled craftsman to help fix their vessel, MacDougall said. While traditional wooden boats are only a small part of the market, a great deal of wooden boat repair and restoration work goes on there as well.

The Folk and Traditional Arts Area will feature a “narrative stage” where noted boat builders such as Ralph Stanley of Southwest Harbor and Isaac Beal of Beals Island, home of famous lobster boats, will comment on their craft. Stanley, well-known for his Friendship sloops, will sail one of the traditional craft up the Penobscot River for the viewing of festival-goers. The Bowdoin, polar explorer Donald MacMillan’s famous schooner, also is expected to be on hand, courtesy of Maine Maritime Academy.

Festival-goers will be able to see skilled builders engaged in model making, lofting, rib steaming, planking, rigging, sailmaking and boat construction in a nearby demonstration area. One of them, Moses Bridges, a Passamaquoddy Indian, will be making a birch bark canoe.

As a folklorist, MacDougall said she is interested in how traditional skills are learned and passed on to future generations, the relationship of boat builders to their communities, and the stories that are told about boats and boat building.

Boat construction is one major Maine contribution to national folk art. Besides the more than 200 professional boat-building businesses and their estimated 3,000 or more employees (not including Bath Iron Works, where huge warships are built), there are thousands of amateurs and semiprofessionals constructing and repairing watercraft in their garages and shops.

You could write a social and economic history of the state and much of the country, if not the world, based on what boats were being built in Maine at a given time and where and how they were being used. The old names are poetry to the ear today: punt, bateau, shallop, ketch, pink, snow, yawl, sloop, brig, bark, gundalow, peapod, clipper, downeaster and coaster, to name just a few.

The names of some of the state’s most spectacular maritime creations roll off the tongue like sacred milestones in history: the Rappahannock, the USS Georgia, the Corsair and the Ranger are a few that come to mind.

The little Nutshell pram doesn’t sail in quite the same class as these, but the pride and excitement that might fill a small boy who gets a kit to build with his dad is probably not dissimilar to that felt in 1909 at the Percy and Small shipyard in Bath when the 328-foot Wyoming, the largest wooden sailing vessel ever used in the United States, slid down the ways into the Kennebec River in Bath.

Boat building in Maine has been downsized a good deal since those days, when many a small town had a sizable vessel under construction in some back cove, but it’s still an important economic activity in plenty of communities. MacDougall focused a good deal of her attention on the little town of Brooklin, where nine boat builders, employing from just a few to as many as 40 workers making large yachts and fishing boats to small traditional craft, do business along with the WoodenBoat School and WoodenBoat magazine.

When one drives into Brooklin, a sign announces, “The wooden boat capital of the world.” On a per capita basis, that may not be a bad bet, considering just 800 people live here.

The tradition goes way back. Some 42 ships had come off the ways in town by 1830, and another 71 were built over the next 50 years. By 1865, out of 260 men of voting age, 95 could affix the title of captain or master before their name, while many others worked as sailors or fishermen or builders.

“There are more wooden boats being built here than any other community in Maine, I’m sure, because there are more wooden-boat builders here,” Steve White, owner of the Brooklin Boatyard, told MacDougall. “I don’t know why Brooklin has become sort of the Mecca for wooden-boat building particularly, other than probably WoodenBoat magazine was here.” White’s father, Joel, son of famed writer E.B. White, designed the Nutshell pram.

The construction of wooden boats took a downturn with the arrival of fiberglass in the 1950s, but there was a revival of sorts in the 1970s, thanks to renewed interest in traditional handicrafts and life ways brought on with the back-to-the-earth movement. WoodenBoat magazine and several schools up and down the coast helped spark interest as well.

Today, boat building is a part of Maine’s economy with a future, a way to keep young people in the state, said MacDougall.

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