Letter from Brooklin, Maine

Regional ReviewQuarter 2, 1998
by Douglas Whynott

On this June day, a new boat is about to go into the water, a Center Harbor 31, named The Mantelpiece. Launching days are a time when the work of the boatbuilders is revealed and the dreams of the owners come true. Friends, family, and townspeople come down to the yard as the high tide approaches, to take part in that tender moment when the boat floats for the first time.

The Mantelpiece was built at Brooklin Boat Yard, and designed by Joel White. He began building boats there in 1956 with an older boatbuilder, and bought the yard a few years later. White and his crew built wooden lobster boats and sailboats, and when the fiberglass era came, they "finished off" fiberglass lobster boats. During the wooden boat revival in the 1970s, the yard turned to building only wooden boats again; and into the 1990s, White's design work flowered.

The Mantelpiece is a thing of beauty, with its graceful lines. Though only a daysailer, it's a luxurious boat, with an autohelm, an enclosed head, a small galley, cushioned seats that can be used as beds, intricate cabinetry, and golden mahogany trim. Traditional in shape above water, it's modern below, with a fin keel and lead bulb at the bottom that makes for a low center of gravity and high stability. Her good looks and speed made owner Jim Geier, a businessman from Ohio, willing to spend more than $140,000 to have her built.

The boat is also a statement of craftsmanship. For some of the boatbuilders who work at the yard, however, it's a bit too modern for their tastes. Many of them were trained in traditional boatbuilding, using spiled planks and bent frames. The Center Harbor 31, by contrast, has a "cold-molded" hull—thin strips of cedar planks overlaid with glued mahogany veneers. This method produces a hull that's sturdy and light and doesn't require as much maintenance as other wooden boats. Cold-molded boats are competitive with fiberglass boats in the marketplace, and the technique has contributed to the success of Brooklin Boat Yard. But some of the builders decry the use of epoxies and say they miss the smell of linseed oil and cedar shavings.

Yet the tensions from the changes in technology have been set aside when Jim Geier stands in front of his new boat and makes a speech, thanking the builders, thanking Joel White. This is a launching day—a poignant one, too, since White is battling cancer and thus walking with crutches. As The Mantelpiece goes into the water, there is applause, cheers, and picture-taking. Two of the builders take the boat through the harbor for a short run. Then, as the owner's party get aboard, raise the sails, and take The Mantelpiece through the harbor, making some acrobatic turns, the oohs and aahs go up—though not from Joel White. He sits at a bench, enjoying his creation, now in motion, saying not much more than, "It's a nice boat." And so it is.

"The Mayor" spoke with the men, and they quieted down. But their noisemaking eventually flared up again. I called the landlords, who told them to rein in the monkey business. In fact, the landlords have repaired the home and put it up for sale. At night, Burlington Street is quiet again.

Joel White died in December 1997. Douglas Whynott's book about Brooklin Boat Yard, "A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time," will be published by Doubleday next spring.

 

 

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