Wooden Boats:
In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard

by Michael Ruhlmanr

Publisher: Viking Press
325 pages
List Price: $24.95
Amazon price: $17.27
What I paid: $6 off the bargain book rack

This is an odd book. Based upon the title, the cover, the liner notes and the first few chapters, you are led to believe that the focus of the work will be about boats. Certainly, boats are a frequent topic of discussion. But as it turns out, the book is really about a boatyard and the people who work there.

I have the impression that perhaps even Michael Ruhlman, the author, was a little surprised by the direction this book takes. In the beginning, he focuses his attention on the construction of Rebecca, a 60-foot plank on frame schooner being built at the Gannon & Benjamin boatyard on Martha’s Vineyard. The story, it seems will be about a year-in-the-life of this classic beauty.

For a boat builder or any lover of wooden boats, Rebecca is an attractive lure. She is a dreamboat--the stuff of fantasy--beyond the reach of all but a fortunate few. The vicarious thrill of following along with the construction of such a unique project draws in the reader and I suspect, originally drew Ruhlman to write the book as well. The book also includes a tantalizingly meager helping of hull line drawings and construction photographs that serve to wet the appetite and to entice the reader’s hunger for things to come.

However, when the story of the Rebecca’s coming out unexpectedly stalls, I can almost picture Michael Ruhlman sitting alone at his writing desk asking himself: “What the heck am I supposed to do now?”

Fortunately for Ruhlman, and for the reader, Rebecca is not the only interesting thing to write about at the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway. At first, Ruhlman makes a somewhat misguided attempt to simply substitute another G&B project, the Elisa Lee, a 32-foot lobster boat into the plot. Unfortunately, this is a little like having a super-model for a prom date and then being told at the last minute that you’ll be going to the big dance with your cousin. Elisa Lee does have some interesting features and is sort of “pleasant-looking”, but it’s obvious right from the moment of her introduction that she’s never going to ignite the kind of spark promised by Rebecca.

At many points in the book, Ruhlman gets a bit lost, as if struggling to decide what course to take when no clear destination is apparent. But where the book really succeeds is when it heads away from the story of the boats and turns toward that of the builders and the boatyard itself. Ruhlman may have originally intended for this biographical material to act simply as secondary “filler” material but ultimately, these personal stories become the heart of the book.

Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon, the two founders of the boatyard each have histories interesting enough to carry the book by themselves. Celebrities, well-known boating personalities and of course, well-known boats make periodic cameos as the stories unfold providing an indication of just how far the influence of one tiny boatyard can reach. Through these stories we come to understand the events that led Nat and Ross’s near inevitable partnership and how they came to find success and happiness in a profession that is itself a historical anachronism.

The lives of other boatyard workers are similarly chronicled though in less detail. The story of Brad Ives, the boatyard’s intrepid wood supplier has more swashbuckling adventure than many pirate movies. In many ways, I found myself also wanting to know more about the book’s minor players—from Ginny, the cranky office manager to Myles Thurlow, the teenage apprentice. In the end, even the boatyard itself has a story to tell and its history unexpectedly provides one of the most exciting climaxes and also the most heartwarming moments in the book.

Ruhlman may have had a clear destination in mind when he began this book, but the story is no less interesting for never having arrived there. Like most good stories, the adventure is in the trip itself. In addition, the tale does not end when the last page is turned. Nat and Ross are still out there building boats. The G&B boatyard is still providing a home for skills near forgotten by the modern world. And if you check the September / October 2002 of WoodenBoat Magazine (Issue #168), you’ll see that even Rebecca eventually finds her way to the prom—a little late, but no less striking for the delay.

As long as there are wooden boats and people who love them, the story will go on and on…

Review submitted by Shawn Payment, San Diego, CA, September 2002.