SPLASH: Boatbuilding on Nantucket -July 2008

by: Joshua B. Gray

photography by: Jim Powers

The immutable link between the ocean and those who sail upon it has been contemplated and written about for longer than most history can recall. Mankind’s medium for connecting with the earth’s vast seas has always been the boat. 

The great American dramatist Eugene O’Neill illustrated in his masterpiece “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a profound example of the unique human connection to the sea and the ships that sail its waves. 

“I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me. Every mast with sail white in the moonlight – towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it – and for a second I lost myself, actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved into the sea, became white sails and flying spray – became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky. I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of man, to Life itself! To God if you want to put it that way.”

There is an especially mysterious and even romantic quality afforded to tales of the sea and the men and women who sail it. The harmonic line between the great blue depths and the human experience has been tied for millenniums to the art of boatbuilding. 

From the tragedy of the whaleship Essex, to the immortal image of Melville’s Ahab, the ties between boat and sailor are especially strong among those who call Nantucket home. 

The Egan Maritime Institute will remember and salute the island’s relationship with the seagoing vessel in its 2008 special exhibition “Splash: Boatbuilding on Nantucket” at the Coffin School on Winter Street. It will honor those who have spent their lives creating all types of boats, whether as their sustenance or for their personal joy, many times both. 

Nantucket’s already rich history becomes even more meaningful when the many facets of its boatbuilding legacy are explored. From the five massive whaleships that were painstakingly built at the Brant Point Shipyard before it burned to the ground for the last time, to the world-renowned fleet of Alerions that continue to be built on-island today by Matt Rives, Nantucket’s boatbuilding heritage is significant and at the heart of this small island.

“Sometimes we forget how attached we are to the sea,” said Jascin Leonardo Finger, curator of the Egan Maritime Institute and primary architect of the exhibit. “It is our lifeline in many respects. Living on an island is like living on a large boat. Our lives are controlled by the weather, very much like those who take to the sea.”

Jean Grimmer, executive director of the institute, said that to date this exhibit is the hallmark of Finger’s work and it has generated definite outreach into the Nantucket community. 

A former teacher with the Nantucket New School, who also holds the position of curator of the Maria Mitchell House and special collections at the Maria Mitchell Association, Finger began gathering information for the exhibit last spring after she and Grimmer attended the launch of Woodchuck, a double-ended dory built by Chuck Colley’s high-school shop class.

“From that point we really started to think about boatbuilding on Nantucket,” said Finger. “We spoke to different boatbuilders on the island and gathered oral traditions and historic artifacts that go back as far as the 18th century.”

With contributions and pieces on loan from the Nantucket Historical Association and island boatbuilders and their families, the exhibition, said Grimmer, probably represents the only time the public will ever be able to see them assembled in one place. 

Seen on one wall of the exhibit, an excerpt from The Inquirer and Mirror’s July 30, 1938 Saturday-morning edition reads “. . . He leaned his brawny shoulder against the Argonaut’s bow . . . mighty man is he . . .”These words spoke of the launch of Charlie Sayle Sr.’s boat that he himself built and his descendants still sail to this day. 

The lives of those who built these small vessels and majestic ships varied as much as their craft itself, said Finger. Some made their livelihood day in and day out building boats for fishermen and sailors, while others – coopers, carpenters and the like – spent their precious few spare hours slowly crafting a vessel that they would cherish for the rest of their lives.

While the tradition of building boats as a hobby on Nantucket continues unabated into the present, the business of boatbuilding, has suffered over the years.

“As a livelihood, boatbuilding has evolved over time,” said Grimmer. “It has always found a way to fit in with, and be tied to, the fishery business.”

As whaling diminished near the end of the 19th century, and recreational sailing became popular, said Finger, the decline of boatbuilding as a livelihood was evident. The Brant Point Shipyard burned in October 1859, as it had several times before. This time, though, there was no need to rebuild it, and its few remaining structures faded into obscurity, including the marine railway, some portions of which can still be spotted half-buried today. 

The exhibit utilizes a major portion of the first floor of the Coffin School, displaying an array of boatbuilding tools, examples of small uniquely-designed water-craft, paintings and photos of well-known ships and their makers, as well as historic artifacts that include builder’s journals and logs from centuries past. 

Another fascinating item included is the photographic documentation of Phil Osley’s 1972 winter project. Looking for something to pass the time, Osley and friends put together The Bottom Scratcher, a three-man submarine made from scrap metal gathered at the Madaket Mall (the Nantucket landfill). A 1,000-gallon fuel drum served as the main body of the vessel, which eventually made one successful dive with a crowd of spectators looking on. Though the vessel now rests in a watery grave, the story is a fascinating one and only further illustrates Nantucket’s seagoing tradition. 

There will be lectures throughout the summer season, said Grimmer, and the institute will also offer a series of discussions that will focus on and complement the exhibit that will remain on display through Columbus Day. There is also an interactive area for children to enjoy the collection, she added. 

Grimmer concluded by saying she hopes people get a greater sense through this exhibit about the great boatbuilding heritage that belongs to Nantucket.

Splash: Boatbuilding On Nantucket 
Open through Columbus Day in the 
Coffin School, 4 Winter Street. 
Admission is $5 and free to Egan Maritime members

Joshua B. Gray is an editorial assistant and a writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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