Two ‘Hippie Carpenters’ Make Their One Hundredth Boat

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Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon’s solar-powered sailboat.

When the world was smaller, harbors all had different boats. Suited to the bodies of water they crossed and worked, boats people made were all different. It wasn’t that people were so determined to distinguish themselves; they just made boats that worked well where they were. 

Since factories have been constructed that coerce rivers of petrochemicals into boat shapes that can be banged out of molds like ice cubes, it’s generally easier not to build your own. But in Vineyard Haven, the team at Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway builds custom wooden boats for personal reasons. The boats Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin liked when they were young sailors got too old to sail without being rebuilt. The shop, founded around 1979, evolved from a lot of the skills Ross and Nat had gained over two decades of trying to keep their own half-wrecked boats on the water. The boats they loved were built in styles you couldn’t experience unless you could build or repair them yourself.

And they were boats to be experienced. Nat and his wife Pam came to Vineyard Haven in the early seventies aboard a boat called Sorcerer, a boat whose every component was crafted and personal and invariably showed its age in some unique way. Built in 1921 in Norway, the 10 Meter class racing sloop was sixty feet long on deck and had no engine. With fabulous overhangs, only thirty-six feet of the hull touched the water. The tall rig probably made the deck creak and groan when it laid the topsides over in a breeze before sending the sloop flying like an albatross over the irregular ocean’s surface. The young couple had already sailed the boat across the Atlantic and spent a year with it hauled out at a boatyard on the island of Martinique, where Nat removed the interior, and with some advice from the old timers around him, figured out how to install all new frames. It was knowledge Nat would put to use again when Ross Gannon (a friend in his late twenties living in Vineyard Haven, but more importantly, another hippie carpenter with an old boat), asked for help doing some reframing on his own boat, a 36-foot Casey cutter called Urchin. Ross had built a cradle around it, then with help from a couple friends and one of their trucks, put his engineer’s training to use and hauled it out at the head of the harbor, at the end of Beach Road Extension.

Over the course of a couple of fall days in 1978, Ross and Nat replaced all of Urchin’s frames. The magazine WoodenBoat was new, and it had caught the attention of people like Ross and Nat, capable people who had grown up around wooden boats, appreciated them deliriously, but were struggling to keep them afloat. They were hungry for information that you still can’t find on Youtube. Wooden boats were already relatively rare, and Vineyard Haven, which had become a spontaneous gathering place for wooden boat owners and enthusiasts, was home to a number of old boats that needed repairs similar to those Ross and Nat had made to Urchin.

Nat and his wife Pam came to Vineyard Haven in the early seventies aboard a boat called Sorcerer, a boat whose every component was crafted and personal and invariably showed its age in some unique way. 

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With deep water and easy access to some of the world’s most extraordinary sailboat cruising grounds, Vineyard Haven has always appealed to serious mariners. Its culture and reputation has always been that of a working harbor, providing a foothold on the Island for necessary infrastructure. People who worked as yacht captains and merchant mariners, or locally in marine trades, hauling building materials, driving pilings, and building boats, usually kept their boats there.

This past winter, Nat and Ross began work (on spec) on Nat’s 100th design, a twenty-seven foot sloop that will carry a gaff rig and hide an inboard electric motor.  They built their shop and railway after they repaired Urchin, with the aim of servicing the needs of the vibrant community around them. “Maybe building a boat here and there. We never expected any of this,” Ross says, nodding at the bustle of activity and the boats crowded into the yard.  

More than seventy original boats they’ve built to Nat’s designs. The new boat is the product of a forty-four-year commitment to a place and a craft, a community’s commitment of sweat and resources.

Managed now by their partner in the business, Brad Abbot, Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway services and maintains dozens of boats, still builds a new boat every couple years, and constantly has a few boats in the yard having repair work done. When Design Number 100, which everybody around the shop has been calling Marta in appreciation of the company’s talented bookkeeper, was drawn on the shop floor in January, there were two local boats on the railway, one in for maintenance and the other for modifications, a boat on jack stands in the driveway for repairs, and at least four boats in the shed across the street, undergoing various stages of major restorations.

“I enjoy being involved here, because we’re all sailors,” said Brad Abbot this spring. “When we build or rebuild, it’s fulfilling for me because we have that angle. You look at something with people you trust, and you say, ‘What’s the best way to do this?’ You know you’re putting something on the water that’s going to work well and, especially with Nat’s boats, behave the way you want.”

As both solar panel and battery technology have improved, more boat owners are using electric motors to provide auxiliary power on sail boats. Marta will be the first local boat to put the motor down below and connect it to a propeller shaft, the same way you would use an inboard diesel motor. “The battery technology is such that somebody can rely on it,” Brad says.

A pair of small solar panels that will lie on the cockpit seats while she is on her mooring, will provide sufficient energy to power Marta in and out of the harbor between races and adventures. The batteries will likely store enough power for a return trip from Tarpaulin Cove or Cuttyhunk on a breathless summer day.

Most of the work on Marta has been done by Ross’s oldest son, Lyle Zell, and Andrew Chapman, a trained boat builder who has years of experience in construction boatyards in Maine, Newport, and beyond. For five years, the two have worked side-by-side in Vineyard Haven, learning from each other and adapting their techniques.

“Most of the boatbuilding I know I learned from my Dad,” says Lyle (who also has a degree focused on systems and design from Maine Maritime Academy), “just from following him around. When Andy and I started working together, we each had different ways of doing everything. It’s been really interesting to me what we’ve taught each other. With this last project, it’s kind of the culmination of that. Like a melding of styles. It’s been fun.”

Lyle has two younger siblings, Olin and Greta, who both worked on the boat this winter. Olin, during his winter break from college, along with Ross and this writer, helped cut out, shape and fasten together the timbers that make up, with the exception of the southern-live-oak stem, the entirely purple-heart backbone of the boat. Greta shifted onto the project, in between jobs sailing boats back and forth from the Caribbean, when the planking was finished and the holes, countersunk for fastenings, were ready to be filled with the wooden plugs carpenters call bungs. 

With deep water and easy access to some of the world’s most extraordinary sailboat cruising grounds, Vineyard Haven has always appealed to serious mariners.

“It wasn’t my intent to ever have them working here,” Ross says of his kids. “This was their playground. It always surprises us,” he adds, referring to himself and his wife, Kirsten, Olin’s and Greta’s mother. “They seem to know how to do things you wouldn’t expect. How to drive a machine or position your body when you pull on a line, all these things like they’ve done them before, just from being around it.”

“In the early years,” Nat says, “Ross and I did everything on our own. Some of the paint jobs were not the best. But we always wanted to see this expand into more of a community, rather than a couple wooden boat hippies living their dream.”

The shop is still a place where a retired local teacher can haul out their cranky old wooden boat and do the yearly maintenance on it themselves. “I feel like human beings need to create,’ says Nat, “that all of them want to create something. I feel those that don’t get the opportunity are usually kind of frustrated.”

“In the early years,” Nat says, “Ross and I did everything on our own. Some of the paint jobs were not the best. But we always wanted to see this expand into more of a community, rather than a couple wooden boat hippies living their dream.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about spending time on the water,” Andy Chapman says regarding his approach to his particular craft. “You try and make that experience beautiful. Nat’s boats do that as well as any boats in the world.” Andy’s own boat is one of Nat’s designs. He bought Maybe Baby when it needed some help after thirty years of regular use. In the summer he sails it almost every day, but during the rest of the year he has been restoring it, season by season, on nights and weekends in his backyard in Vineyard Haven. He keeps it almost exactly as it was when it was launched, though he painted its hull moss green.

When the mainsail goes up, mast hoops clack against the fir spar. Maybe Baby glides easily and swivels through tacks in a light breeze. Under a torrent of wind, reefed down, she feels safe and comfortable as she bucks against a chop.  She has a manageable enough rig to always feel safe, but is powerful enough to compete well in local races.

Nat thinks he’s gotten better at drawing boats over the years.  “I used to make a half model to see it in three dimensions,” he says, “now I just do it on paper.” 

Because they are both gaff sloops, of similar size and Nat’s design, many times during Marta’s construction, friends coming through the shop have pointed out the differences between her and Maybe Baby.  Andy always says, “I’m curious how she’ll sail against the Baby.” 

Latest Stories

Harry Ricciardi
Harry Ricciardi
Harry Ricciardi has been building boats at Gannon & Benjamin since 2009, and worked for many years restoring a 26-foot Nordic Folk boat he found in the MVTimes Bargain Box. When the restoration of “Tosen” was complete, Harry decided to sail it to the Caribbean, despite his lack of bluewater sailing, and the boat’s lack of an engine, working electronics, or any charts to speak of. Harry persevered and returned to Vineyard Haven months later, and now builds boats (including Marta), and writes.
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