Hitching a Ride on a 1920s Boat Heading to the WoodenBoat Show at Mystic


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There’s nothing quite like docking at the WoodenBoat Show in a carefully restored 1927 45-foot wooden “commuter” boat after a two-hour trip that began in Essex and ended at Mystic Seaport Museum Thursday afternoon. 

Seated aft, described as a “rumble seat” by boat captain Sloan Danenhower, of Old Lyme, CT Examiner staff had a chance to experience what it might be like to travel Long Island Sound in the early-20th century when commuter boats zipped businessmen to and from their summer homes and their city offices. 

Designed so that the wind blew past but not on the passengers, the boat offered a view of the Connecticut River, the shoreline and Mystic Harbor, and a fresh perspective on the proposed Smiler’s Wharf development that is invisible along automobile routes where most of us travel.

Rod Clingman, of Old Lyme, who is the Director of Sales – Northeast for Maritime Insurance International in West Mystic, helped navigate. Clingman said he was partial to wooden boats. 

CT Examiner’s Cate Hewitt talks with the crew (Credit: CT Examiner/Stroud)

“I’ve been on wooden boats, steel boats, fiberglass boats and I have to say that there’s something about a wooden boat — it’s quieter, meaning the sound of the wash and the seas and the water is muffled by the wooden boat whereas in a fiberglass boat, it’s so noisy,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to the show both to do business and “to be with like-minded individuals and enthusiasts. You really see the craft, you see artists in their own trade.” 

Tradition and technology

As soon as we landed, I stepped ashore to meet some of those artisans and craftspeople. I  didn’t need to look far — in the next slip was Tony Davis of Arey’s Pond Boat Yard in Orleans, Mass., who was putting the finishing touches on a 24-foot custom catboat. 

“It’s a two and a half year project,” he said. “It’s a traditional Cape Cod catboat and the idea is they’re ‘beam-y’ and they sail in shallow water because they gain their stability from the width of the boat. This boat draws two and a half feet,” he said, wiping his brow. 

The boat is a combination of tradition and modern technology, he said. 

“I use a lot of older techniques in the joinery and the design. The hull is a little more modern, it’s what we call composite construction, it’s cold-molded — it’s all wood but it has some epoxies. Beyond everything is preserving the tradition of the design and the craft,” he said. “The rig dates back to the late 1800s.” 

At 61, Davis said he’d been building boats since he was 17, when he apprenticed with a boat builder. His company has taken on interns from boat-building schools for about the last five years. “And then ultimately we hire them if they like building catboats —  though we don’t just build catboats — then they’ll stay with us,” he said. “That is key, those young people coming out of school and spending some time on the water and trying to find the right path

Mystic Seaport (Credit: CT Examiner/Stroud)

Understanding how the boat building business works from the inside out is essential for aspiring boat builders and designers, Davis said. 

“The advice I would give, assuming the passion is there, I’d like to see them work in a real, active boatyard, with the hauling, the storing, the sanding, the bottom painting — really get to know the nuts and bolts of the business,” he said. “And then to really know how to build a boat, they need to build a boat, so I recommend that when you punch out from the boatyard, you go home or see if the boatyard owner will give you a corner in the shop, and you build a boat and work out all the issues. It’s hard work but it’s very rewarding as you see your efforts come to fruition.”

 Just Add Labor

Up on land, John C. Harris, owner and CEO of Chesapeake Light Craft in Annapolis, Maryland, was readying his sprawling display of kayaks, boats, and even an all-wood camper trailer that can be hauled by a Honda Fit. 

“Our business is build-your-own boats from kits of plans,” he said. “We travel all over the country so that people can touch and feel before they commit to such a big project. Some of these are not so big but some are 200 hours,” he said, pointing to a “peapod” boat. The project he said would cost about $10,000 if built custom but can be made with his kit for under $3,000. “Just add labor,” he laughed. 

Most of the construction techniques are the same since the early 1990s when his company got started, but “technology has swept like a wave over everything,” he said. 

“Whereas in 1994 when I cut my first kits, I was cutting the parts by hand, now they’re cut by a robotic computer,” he said. “The level of precision available to us allows us to do things with design that were impossible 25 years ago. A boat like this would not have been possible using both analog design and fabrication techniques. This is a boat with a very high parts count but they are cut within a thousandth of an inch, so a first-time boat builder can plausibly build this boat.” 

A Lifelong Passion

Catching that boat “bug” happened early for Andrew Breece, 34, publisher of WoodenBoat magazine and the organizer of the show. He said his passion for wooden boats started at age three because his father, a professor who turned avid sailor during his graduate studies, subscribed to the magazine.

“At three, you can’t read at that age but you can process shapes and colors, I would pick up the magazine and start peering through the pages — so that’s when the ‘infection’ started — the shapes turned into pictures and those pictures ended up being beautiful boats and I started to recognize names and designers and eras of boat design,” he said. 

By age ten, he was reading the magazine cover-to-cover. And then came a remarkable twist of fate.

“I noticed a design challenge — WoodenBoat did a lot of those — and there was one called ‘the ideal trainer’ and the parameters were for a parent and a child to be able to build this boat together and for the child to be able to sail it by himself,” he said. “So, I wrote to WoodenBoat magazine and said, ‘Would you ever be interested in having a judge that was within the age that this is intended for?’ and they said, ‘We’d love to have you be a judge!’ And that’s how I became really close to the people who worked at WoodenBoat magazine.”

Breece said at age 14 he mowed lawns for an entire summer so he could afford his first sailboat, a Cape Dory Typhoon, which wasn’t a wooden boat. “I always wanted a wooden boat but it wasn’t practical.” He also worked at the local yacht club during the summers. 

“Imagine this 14-year-old kid, living on a 19-foot sailboat, working at a yacht club — and I just loved everything about it,” he said. “And the more time I spent on the water, the more time I got infected with the bug, and the more I wanted to research naval architecture, the more I was interested in boat construction.”

He also read “Dove,” by Robin Lee Graham, about a 16-year-old who sailed around the world in the late 1960s. “That instilled adventure on a sailboat in me,” he said. “So I’m really interested in all facets — from the design to the construction to the voyaging.” 

Breece graduated from Bates College in 2008. He went on to study yacht design at the Landing School of Boat Building and Design Kennebunkport, but left early because he was offered the opportunity to work at the WoodenBoat School, which is connected to the  magazine. From there he worked at Mystic Seaport Museum in the advancement department doing fundraising.

“But I always wanted to work at WoodenBoat Magazine so I just kept in touch with them and one day the phone rang,” he said. It was Jim Miller, the magazine’s president and general manager, offering Breece a job. 

That was five years ago and Breece has been publisher for the last two, in charge of WoodenBoat and also Professional BoatBuilder magazine, as well as the WoodenBoat show. 

He said visitors get “two experiences in one” by seeing the boat show and Mystic Seaport Museum. He also recommended the Family BoatBuilding program that allows children and parents to build the “Amanda” in three days and take it home. 

“It can do everything — it can row well, it can sail well and you can put a little outboard motor on it and motor it well,” he said. “They learn the art and at the end of three days they have a boat to go home with and enjoy.”

Bringing the next generation into the wooden boat tribe is part of the motivation for the program he said. 

“We thought this would be a great way to get kids infected with the boat building bug,” he said. “Even all these old-timers, if you ask them it always goes back to when they were a kid — it sticks with them. Once the younger audience gains exposure to boats and sailing, it really sticks with them, that’s one of our biggest challenges and what we’re focusing on.” 

Slow and Steady

Alec Brainerd, who owns Artisan Boatworks in Rockport, Maine, said wooden boats are often connected intergenerationally to families. 

“A lot of the boats that we build get passed down from generation to generation. And we do a lot of restoration work — someone will bring us a boat that was built in the 1920s, built by or for their great-grandfather,” he said. 

He pointed to “phase one” of a custom catboat he was building for Yarrow Thorn and his family, that will be called “Whirlwind II” after a boat Thorn’s great-grandfather sailed around Long Island. 

“We’ve finished phase one of what will be a three-phase build,” Brainerd said of a nearby 26-foot catboat on display. “It’s a design from the 1890s but it’s built with modern wood epoxy composite, so it’s the best of both worlds.”

Brainerd said wooden boats were a “tiny niche but it’s never going to go away.” 

“It’s never going to be big business, but we don’t want it to be. It’s steady, we’re not really affected by the economy. People don’t make a split-second decision to buy one of these, it’s a long process. It’s slow and steady.” 

If you go: The 28th annual WoodenBoat Show runs from Friday through Sunday, June 28-30, at the Mystic

Seaport Museum, 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, CT 06355. Call 860.572.0711 for more information.