Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wooden Boats by Michael Ruhlman

Early in Wooden Boats, Michael Ruhlman presents a paradox. The vast majority of today’s boats are fiberglass, their parts stamped out on assembly lines. Yet a magazine dedicated to hand-built wooden boats, WoodenBoat, is among the most popular in the boating world. It has 100,000 subscribers, ten times the number of wooden boats in the United States.

With that ten-to-one ratio of aspirants to owners, something needs explaining. Ruhlman does so via the people and boats of Gannon & Benjamin (G&B), a boatyard in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. He follows the design and construction of two G&B boats, covering everything from the wood’s provenance to shop-floor techniques.

Through it all, Ruhlman tells the G&B people’s stories, especially those of the principles, Ross and Nat, and their stubbornly idealistic way of boat-building: You must build a boat that, with proper care, will live forever. Your design must be worthy of forever, honing form and function to a point of perfection. Your materials must be natural complements to the air and water the boat will sail on, and against. You have thousands of years of wooden-boat practice to study. Learn it, preserve it, and carry it forward.

This worldview matters because mechanized production and modern materials can create good boats at relatively low cost, but they cannot create great, timeless boats.

Caring about such things is peculiarly human. The G&B boat-builders care. So do the 100,000 people that read WoodenBoat, even if most have settled for fiberglass in their own boats. Ruhlman wants you to care too.

It will help if you have a taste for the details of craftsmanship—why the cotton caulk is placed just so around countersunk bolt heads—because Wooden Boats has a lot of that. But it’s the people’s stories that make the book shine, assuming you see light in others’ idealism.

Not everyone does, a point Ruhlman makes in a vignette about visitors to the G&B shop:

Two strangers who had heard about the schooner walked along the staging, having a look around. They were a middle-aged man and woman, one a pragmatist, the other a romantic. They hung over the transom and stared down into the cavernous hull.

“You can see the world in here!” the woman exclaimed.

The man said, “That’s a lot of wood.”

Wooden Boats is about what people choose to see when they look down into that cavernous hull.

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