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A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time (Douglas Whynott)


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  White on White is selling well at the General Store. The tape includes excerpts from E. B. White's letters, the poem "Song of the Queen Bee," excerpts from the essay "The Ring of Time," and all of "The Sea and the Wind That Blows" ("I inherited my dad's love of boats big time," Joel says in his introduction to the essay). It ends with the love poem "Natural History." Lorna at the General Store ordered twenty-four tapes. She sold four the first night, ten the next day, and now has only four left—"what's right there," she says, pointing to the stack by the case of baked goods on the counter. Of E. B. White, Lorna says that "he was known and admired around here." And protected too, Joel has said: those who would come to Brooklin looking for E. B. White would hear, "E.B. who?"

As for Joel, when I asked if he'd been the model for Henry Fussy, he laughed and said, "I guess these things all come around eventually."

Joel has undergone his last chemotherapy treatment, he's been told. He's walking with only a cane now and is close to letting go of that. He's in what is perhaps his most creative and productive period. There are the new CH 31s and their modifications. He's designed the 63-foot ketch. Luke Allen, the father of Joel's son-in-law, Taylor Allen, has commissioned a design for a 44-foot Down East powerboat, to be called Boss Lady.

And yesterday a contract has been signed for a most ambitious project. A real estate developer from Massachusetts wants to design and build a fleet of 76-foot racing sloops. The inspiration is the Herreshoff New York 50, nine of which were built in 1913, the last boats of that size to be built for a racing class. This man, Donald Tofias, has paid $5,000 for the rights to the design Joel will create. He plans to promote the boat and look for other parties interested in owning what will be called the W-Class racers. Previously Tofias had his Starling Burgess cutter Arawak (formerly Christmas) rebuilt at Taylor Allen's yard, Rockport Marine. The plan at this stage is that the W-Class boats will be built both at Rockport Marine and at Brooklin Boat Yard. Joel is just beginning the sail plan.


* * *


Joel's office has the feeling of a sanctuary. Perhaps it's the year, the time of his life, but it feels like there's work to be done here. Sometimes the boatbuilders come in to ask questions, but not so often. Rick Clifton said that Joel always helps, but you're always aware you're in a sanctuary. As for myself, I want to stay here and watch, but I also want not to get in the way. I say one time to Joel, "What I do is somewhere between being a pain in the ass and being a researcher," and he laughs and says, "We'll let you know if you're a pain in the ass."

It seems a wonderful place to work. There's the view of the harbor, the islands, the Reach, and Deer Isle. The room is full of natural light, some of it reflected off the water. When the sun sets, sometimes the room fills with hues of red. E. B. White had his boathouse on Allen Cove, where he wrote on a typewriter, and Joel has his design studio in a tower by the harbor. From here had come Dragonera, Grace, and now, perhaps, the W-76.

There are two drawing tables, and Joel can pivot from one to the other. The tables are supported by wooden file drawers, which have many sheets of drawings in them. There's a cubby cabinet with rolled-up plans inside. Along the wall, bookshelves, with a prominent row of CDs, and a long shelf of books about yacht design, including Skene's Elements of Yacht Design, revised 1973 edition, the most frequently used book. There are collections of designs by Rhodes, Herreshoff, Crocker, Alden, Garden, and others. Joel's five-volume Uffa Fox collection is there, and A Rudder Treasury. There's a complete set of WoodenBoat. There's even an edition of An American Boy's Handybook, which E. B White used to build the skiff Flounder.

On the walls are photos of boats and of people sailing boats. There's one of the scow schooner Vintage, another of Ellisha with Joel and his granddaughter in the cockpit. One of Joel sailing a Beetle Cat, Vindicator. Joel in the cockpit of Northern Crown, looking up at the sails. Northern Crown dominates; it is also represented in a lines drawing, a charcoal sketch, a halfmodel, one of Kathy Bray's profile drawings, and other photographs, including one of Joel in the cockpit wearing a foxtail cap (he has been called "the fox of Eggemoggin Reach"). There are half-models on the walls, and sail plans all about, and whole models on the shelves.

When there's a call from Taylor Allen, he and Joel discuss the powerboat, Boss Lady. When Joel finishes, before lunch, he sits by the window in his office and tells about the boats that are still at their moorings in the harbor, the fall lingerers.

"Free Spirit's a real pretty boat," he says. "A few years back we put new decks on her and re-covered the house and redesigned the cockpit. Two or three years ago I designed a new rig to go with it, a larger rig and taller mast. We were able to cover a change in the ballast that increased stability, so the boat could stand up to the larger rig.

"And beyond her," Joel says, "that long, low, black boat, that's an old P-Boat designed by William Gardner and built in 1913, I think. We've done a great deal of rebuilding, completely reframed her over the last five or six years. New planking and a lot of work on the deck and cabin house.

"There's two Concordia yawls there, very beautiful boats and a pretty famous class of boats. Hundred and one of them built, I think, most of them by Abeking and Rasmussen in Germany. I think they're all still in existence, all still sailing. They're wonderful boats, not terribly roomy down below but great boats, extremely photogenic.

"And the last boat out, the big cutter there, is a very interesting boat called Senta. She's a Phil Rhodes design. Senta was built on the West Coast in 1937. She's a sister to a boat that won the '36 Bermuda Race. Senta is now owned by a couple from Castine. They use her and take people out on charters in the summertime. We'll haul her out by and by.

"That one coming in now, that's Cirrus. Herreshoff built and designed, Fishers Island 31 Class, 43 feet long. They're great boats. She was built back in 1930. Cirrus and I are exactly the same age. One of the first naval architecture jobs I ever had, when I was still at MIT, was to design a yawl rig for her. I knew the owner, who's now dead. He bought her in 1932 and owned her until a few years ago. Pretty original down below. She hasn't changed much at all.

"And there's Alisande. She's an old William Hand design, done in 1913, I think. A couple of them were built and seem to have been very successful. A couple of them took long voyages. I had a customer show up who wanted one. There were no plans. The old William Hand plans burned up in a fire or something. So I just had a drawing in The Rudder to go by. I drew up a set of lines and we made a bunch of changes to the interior. I just started with the drawing and basically designed a boat that looked as much like it as possible. We built the boat, and then another guy who wanted a boat like her for long-distance cruising, he borrowed my drawings and built one. Harry Bryan, in New Brunswick. He and his family sailed to Tasmania and back. Patience, built off the same plans as Alisande."

When Joel and I leave the studio to go to the Morning Moon, I offer to drive, but he says no, he'll drive; it's one of the few things left he can still do. At lunch Joel says that the doctors have told him he's in the clear, and that they've asked him to speak at the opening of a new cancer clinic in Bangor. He says that he hates to speak in public, but he figures that he'll come up with a few lines. Recently Joel has read to a group of kids from the Bay School, a section from Charlotte's Web, out at his dad's barn. "I must have missed one line, because a boy said, 'No, that's not it,' and I thought, There's a student."

I tell Joel I've been into the library in Brooklin, that I've read through The Fox of Peapack, and that there are some interesting poems in the book. "That's going way back," Joel says. It was published early in his dad's career, and he's not all that familiar with it. Joel says that when his dad was young he had written a lot of poetry, written all the time, and that he'd kept a journal. E.B. had told him to burn the journal after he died, but it had been eleven years now and still he hadn't done it. I tell him I figure that if a writer can't burn his own journals he shouldn't ask his kids to do it, and I facetiously add that Joel could photocopy the journal and then burn it. "Yeah," he says, "but I think that when I got to heaven the reception might be bad." I've memorized a few lines of one of the poems in The Fox of Peapack, "Apostrophe to a Pram Rider," and though I feel a bit strange about saying them, I do.

Some day when I'm out of sight,
Travel far but travel light! . . .
Raise the sail your old man furled,
Hang your hat upon the world! . . .
Joe, my tangible creation,
Happy in perambulation,
Work no harder than you have to.
Do you get me?

"Something like that," I say. Joel smiles. He's impressed. He says he'll have to look the poem up. Could this be a gift? Not from me, but from his father, sixty-some years after the making. Could that be the case? If so, what beauty, to lay something like that away and let it wait.

 
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Excerpted from A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time by Douglas Whynott. Copyright © 1998 by Douglas Whynott. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.