showed up in Brooklin, Maine, for the first time in January, 1996. I had received a letter from an editor at Doubleday, suggesting that I look into the subject of wooden boatbuilding in New England. After a period of thinking about it I made a few calls and talked to Joel White, the owner of Brooklin Boat Yard, then headed off to Penobscot Bay.
Joel was in the boatbuilding shop, talking to his son Steve, and he broke away from whatever he was doing that day to give me a tour. I followed him up the stairs--and he seemed to be laboring a bit, with those stairs--where from the second floor of the workshop, a balcony, he pointed out the boats they were building that winter. There were three of them, all in the planking stages, hulls upside down on molds. One was a close rendition of a Nathaneal Herreshoff Buzzards Bay 25, and the other two were adaptations of Quiet Tune, a design for a daysailer by Nathaneal Herreshoff's son, L.Frances Herreshoff. The Quiet Tune design had been modified to the point where it had become a new Joel White design called the Center Harbor 31.
I didn't know anything about the Herreshoffs then, and I'd never heard of a Buzzards Bay 25 or of Quiet Tune. Nor did I have an interest in boatbuilding. I'd looked into boatbuilding and taken this trip to Maine out of curiosity, just to see what I might come upon. And it had seemed odd that when I called Joel White to ask if I could meet him, Joel had said that his son, a commercial fisherman, had just read my previous book, Giant Bluefin, and that he would be reading it next. Sometimes it seems to me that in this matter of a writer finding a subject, you have to look for the signs that mark the path--and so the idea that my book had preceded me to Brooklin, Maine, and that it was residing in the family of the very man I was considering writing about, well, that seemed encouraging.
Joel was great to spend time with--a good storyteller, but a listener too, with a good sense of humor. After Joel showed me around other parts of his boatyard--we looked in on a big racing sailboat built in 1959 that had once been in consideration for the Americas Cup, undergoing a thorough rebuilding--we got in his car and went to some of the other yards in town. Eric Dow and his crew were working on a rendition of an L. Frances Herreshoff design, Araminta. At Benjamin River Marine, Doug Hylan and his crew were putting steamed oak replacement frames in a sardine carrier, Grayling, that was being converted to a yacht. And just a short way down a dirt road from Hylan's shop was an old building in which June Day, a boatbuilder in his mid-70s, was just getting started on a wooden lobster boat to be used for recreation, a picnic boat. June had a big oak beam laid out on sawhorses, and that was the beginning of the keel. We talked for awhile, and I listened to the two of them, in the old shop, rich with the scent of oak, and cedar, and I became a little more interested.
What drew me in that day was not boatbuilding, or boats, but rather the people, and the small New England town. I had grown up in a town on Cape Cod that was much like Brooklin during the 1950s and 1960s. I had been the 12th generation in my mother's family in that town, going back into the 1600s. My grandfather was the grandson of a seacaptain, and he remembered stories of other seacaptains, and all sorts of things that had happened along that little section of Cape Cod Bay. He kept talking, and I kept listening, and the result in me, I think, was that his stories of adventures--told by someone who never left Cape Cod for more than a few days at a time--became transferred into a writer's impulse to tell, in a book, maybe two, about the people of New England, and their work.
On that first day in Brooklin, Maine, Joel White and I got sandwiches at the General Store and we sat in his car at the parking lot at the boatyard, looking out over Center Harbor. We talked about boatbuilding, and we talked about Joel's father, E. B. White, and his work. I told Joel that I had used Elements of Style in some of the writing courses I'd taught, and when I said "Cut needless words," Joel corrected me, saying "Omit needless words." We talked about nature--I told Joel about when I'd worked at a commercial aquarium, and got to let a sea turtle go, and he told me about how when he'd been in his office, an eagle had soared down over Center Harbor during a snowstorm. Later on that afternoon, when I was in Joel's office in the third story of a kind of tower attached to the boatbuilding shop, I asked him if he was the boy in E.B.White's essay, "Once More to the Lake." He shyly, but proudly, answered that yes, he was.
I'm sometimes amazed by the unfolding of the writing process, how a nonfiction book gets started. You talk to someone and have those initial conversations, then make a visit, and a decision to continue, and then there are those hundreds of hours when you really dig deep, read, observe, and study. Then the hundreds hours more, when alone, you write and write, and struggle and create and finally, hopefully, exult in it, hopefully feel that it's been worth it. It amazes me that an initial meeting, the first conversation, leads, a few years later, to that finished product. It's a magical thing, and to me, using a very personal analogy, the journey of the seacaptain who traveled in a wooden boat, finding his way by dead reckoning, orienting by the stars, is not making his way in a manner all that different than the writer orienting by his stars and signs.
When I returned home from my first trip to Brooklin, I wrote a letter to Joel to thank him for his tour. I didn't hear from him for a few weeks, but then a letter came. Joel apologized for taking so long to get back to me, saying that he had found out that he had cancer just before I arrived for my visit. It was lung cancer that had metastasized in his hip, and when I next saw Joel, in June, for the launching of the two Center Harbor 31s, Grace and Linda, he was on crutches, just back from surgery at Mass. General Hospital. But he was cheerful that day, at the launching of his two designs. That's where A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time begins, at that launching.
Of course I couldn't know that Joel would get a commission that year to design a magnificent 76-foot racing daysailer, and that I would be an observer of his work. Or that I would also watch the construction of two more Center Harbor 31s, The Mantelpiece and Pudding, getting to know the boatbuilders who worked at the yard. And of course I couldn't know that Joel would die while that 76-footer, Wild Horses, was in construction, and that I would talk to him just before he died. And I couldn't know about all those other little exchanges we would have, the other conversations, about boats, about writing, about his dad, about life, about dying. I just kept going, and visiting, writing notes, trying to get it down--and it seemed all the more important to try to get it down, to get it right, as time went on. It's such an imperfect process, writing a book, to see and listen, interpret, record and tell, to get that vision, that thing you imagine, down on a page. I'm amazed we can do it at all, and I'm blown away sometimes by the difficulty of it--but I'm proud now to have been there, at the time I was, proud that I saw it through, moving by dead reckoning, charting some of the days and hours of a boatyard, a boatbuilder, a boat designer and artist.
Copyright © 1999 Douglas Whynott.