In the following excerpt, Nick recalls his visit to Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, where he got to meet one of his heroes, boatbuilder Nat Benjamin. Nat's boatyard builds and repairs wooden boats using traditional methods and materials.
We met Nat at the shop, aka the railway, named thus for the actual steel rails that run fifty yards into the water, upon which a boat of a weight up to dozens of tons can be rolled into and out of the harbor's water. It was amazing to see in person the old barn in which I had remotely viewed and read of so much mastery. As in all my favorite shops, the tools and machines were ancient and brown and heavy, thickly squatting upon their cast-iron bases. Our foursome immediately launched into the classic shop-geek rap, admiring exceptional examples of band saw and planer and lathe (pre–World War II!).
I asked Nat himself why one should choose wood over any synthetic hull, and his answer was most satisfying: "Sailing a wooden boat is a symphony of sound above and below deck as the sea rushes by. She also talks to you—a creak here, maybe a groan or two when driven hard. The glow of varnish, salted-down wooden decks, bronze patina, and the structural timbers and fine joinery—all the lovely details give us a visual feast of grace and beauty. And a wooden boat smells so good."
There's an important distinction to be made here: The people who inspire me never seem to be looking to maximize profits. They have an understanding that life's rewards are to be found much more in the difference between sanding, say, white oak and sanding fiberglass and epoxy. Interestingly, these artisans and freethinkers still manage to lead a life of richness and sometimes even prosperity. I must admit that the more my woodshop relegates itself to solid-wood craftsmanship versus fabricating cookie-cutter items out of man-made "wood" products like medium-density fiberboard, the better we seem to feel.
We were then flatly astonished when we cruised across the road to the larger build shed, in the yard of which were several boats being stored for the winter. Inside, there was an enormous Hong Kong schooner built in 1957 to a Sparkman & Stephens design.
The vessel was stripped down to the frames and planks of the hull, and it was mind-boggling as Nat walked us through each piece of the puzzle and how it would fit back together. That's always an important key for me when I consider any project "impossible"; I first consider the fact that, "well, somebody has done this already, so it can be done." Then I remember the advice of Ted Moores, my teacher in canoe craft—you don't have to build the whole boat at once; you just have to make the first piece, and then you make the second piece, and so on. Still and all, this stem-to-stern overhaul that Nat was undertaking would make a grown man weep. Even, perhaps, a grown woman.
We asked Nat what price an overhaul like this would run a person, to which he replied, "About a million." As we stood, blinking and nodding with false understanding, as though we hadn't just [soiled] ourselves, he continued. "That's considerably cheaper than building new." Okay, so wooden boats aren't the cheapest investment out there, but then when I stack it up against a wooden-slab dining table from my shop that goes for ten thousand dollars, it seems rather a bargain. The table has maybe ten parts, and most of that price is the labor and the cost of a large slab of tree (usually around two or three thousand dollars). A boat certainly has more than a hundred times as many parts, all of them curved. In boatbuilding, fine-furniture making, and home building, if anybody's getting rich, it's generally not the men and women swinging the mallets. So what is it that drives these goofy boatbuilders, if not the almighty dollar?
Part of it, for Nat, is simply knowing that he and his shop mates do things in the best possible way they can be done. Their techniques may be centuries old, but they are becoming largely lost to us in this modern era of mass-production and computer-generated 3-D printing.
I think that part of what defines gumption involves a willingness, even a hunger, for one's mettle to be challenged. Nat finds no use for a computer in his work, especially when it comes to designing and lofting, even though most modern designers have switched to CAD programs. The familiar note here seems to be that people with gumption will bristle when less is required of them. A part of human nature tends toward laziness and comfort, which is the part being so lucratively exploited by corporations, but there is a more noble part: the portion of the human spirit that revels, not in ease, but in having its capabilities tested. These estimable characters know the profoundest, bone-deep satisfaction of having themselves challenged by the world, and, relying only upon their human capabilities—their gumption—they not only win the contest, but they infuse those around them with the inspiration to shine as well.