John Gardner: Beginnings

by Tim Weaver

Although John Gardner is a given for most long-time small craft fans and maritime museum folk, for many small boat enthusiasts this is just not so. At best he's a vague figure, "the dory man," "the how-to guy," or "the rowboat fellow." And many small boat fans are missing some of the finest small boat writing of the last 50 years.

This situation may have something to do with first impressions. The first impression a Gardner book leaves on the small boat fan thumbing through one for the first time, is a bit technical. The boat lines and construction details hit the eye immediately. If one isn't familiar with drawings of this sort, the book most likely go back on the shelf. And our writer slips away. Then there's the verb, 'build.' One way or the other it appears in the titles of three of his four books. Many a small boat fan has not, and probably isn't planning to build a small boat, so Gardner slips away again. Then there's the fact that his books, with the exception of The Dory Book, are loosely related articles originally written for the Maine Coast Fisherman, The National Fisherman or a Mystic Seaport publication. They don't go through a subject from A to Z. And there's the Gardner mystique. Just ask any Gardner aficionado about the writer. Well, maybe not. It might lead to unusual expectations. Whatever John Gardner was, he was not an apostle in a rowboat. Let's stick to boats. He was a good writer and the small boat, albeit from a variety of perspectives, was his subject. And reading him is fun. What we want to do is get our new reader started, give he, or she, an idea of what this writer's all about.

And I don't think much would be gained by changing the books as we already have them. I like them just like they are they're full of interesting twists and turns. We've just got to get the new reader to the point where he, or she, can see this, from that point he, or she, will do fine. Maybe what follows will be a nudge in the right direction.

Perhaps the best way is to start at the beginning, take a quick look at the long gone monthly newspaper where John Gardner started writing about boats: the Maine Coast Fisherman. Or the MCF as it liked to call itself, in the early 1950's. And here one was as likely to find a recipe for oyster stuffing, baked squash or finan haddie as a fishery story. And the MCF liked people, and boats, and time, with the past getting, as they say, plenty of ink.

Photos from the last years of the age of sail, a memorable part of the lives of many of the older readers, were prominent -- lime carriers smoking at the wharf after a rain; the Edward B. Winslow low in the water, six masted, 318-feet, running; the Elizabeth Barrette iced up and in "hard shape . . . her crew taken to the hospital in Portland with frozen hands and feet." And an interest in coastal history was never far from the surface. In one issue there was a story on a Mrs. Lelia Clark Johnson and her recently completed history of the towns of Sullivan and Sorento, 400 pages, finished in her 90th year.

In another there was a report on a list of fishing boats built since 1780 in Essex Massachusetts, many of which found there way Down East, one changing hands near her 100th birthday for $662.00. Some, built in the 1830's, it noted, were still working the Maine coast in the early 1900's, for example, "the Accumulator of Deer Isle . . . being in registry as late as 1913."

And there were the columns: "Life at the Light Station," being a collection of new items written by lighthouse keepers; "The Old-Timers' Anchor Watch;" and "God's Tugboat," news from the seacoast mission boat Sunbeam.

And there was news of an individualistic sort. Take the piece on Ben Wallace of West Point, he's standing in the stern of his 15-foot strip built outboard with a 450-pound tuna, head wedged under the mid-ships thwart, one of five he caught last year working alone. And there was a nice piece on the Wincapaws, father and son, dory builders from Friendship. Seems as though they kept two sets of molds, one for boats they built and sold, and one for friends and neighbors to borrow. Seems like the borrowed set never came up with a boat like the Wincapaws built, nor did the dory built by a boatbuilder, a boat yard man, who managed to finagle the not-for-lend-out set. He claimed the only place that boat was, was in their heads. And the Wincapaws were reluctant on that subject, matter of fact the subject of dory building seemed to evince a genuine need by the Wincapaws to talk of horses and the county fair.

And depending on the time of year you got a copy of the MFC, the hunting season might be followed, especially duck.

And in another of those long-gone issues, there's an article on Irving Johnson and his new boat, new to him, that is, the brigantine Yankee. He's excited, "Look at her: Those high bulwarks keep us dry. The long keel keeps her steady. She has such an easy motion that you can go aloft to handle sail in any kind of weather. She displaces two hundred tons. She is really comfortable.''

And amongst it all, the yards and boatbuilders got there due. The lines of a dragger, perhaps a Chapelle design, might appear. In the May of '51 issue, there was a Bolger piece on the future of lobster boat design. Another issue noted a 55-foot schooner-styled dragger was being built alongside the road in Woods Harbor, power for a twenty-inch bandsaw and a table saw being provided by an old Chevy up on blocks, a belt running off a rear rim to the tools. And there were outboard dories for sale, a discussion on the use of radar on sardine carriers, and articles sorting out various aspects of the coastal, very old fisheries stretching from Boston to the Canadian Maritimes.

It was the perfect place for John Gardner, a Down East native with deep ties to the region. In The Maine Coast Fisherman he drew the lines for many a practical workboat and took an uncommon interest in the taken for granted aspects of the waterfront of his time. On the pages of the MCF, Gardner developed a decided and delightful interest in the various rowing and sailing boats tied by time and development to the Northeast coast since the colonial era. He could weave a tale of man and coast and boat that few could match, throwing in plans and building instructions to boot. He was always on the lookout for a good boat that fit a modest budget, was safe and useful.

He wrote about the small Whitehall, and the man who knew a lot about it, Charles Lawton. In fact there was picture of Lawton in retirement, back home at St. John, New Brunswick. When it comes to boatbuilders, he's a Gardner icon. And there were articles on the Chamberlain and Hammond dories. There were articles on boatbuilding tools and techniques with an emphasis on boatbuilding for Everyman.

On the subject of boatbuilding, he showed no allegiance to any one method, old or new. Depending on the boat, he was a likely to suggest plywood as northern white cedar. He liked galvanized nails, and did not appreciate the price of bronze screws. He offered practical advice to people who appreciated a nod in the right direction but were long acquainted with hard work, making due, and taking self-help and independence as the rule. As they might say Down East, "Fitting in, he was." And what he did in the MCF is, pretty much, what he did the rest of his life.

And the word spread. More than a few subscribers to the Maine Coast Fisherman and, later, the National Fisherman, had nothing to do with the fisheries, didn't live in a rural coastal community, and had no interest in commercial boatbuilding. But these subscribers did have a fondness for small boats, and here was an articulate writer, and a boat builder by trade, putting his not insubstantial skills at there disposal. Fussing over rowboat lines, exploring designs they might use, seeing a value in the all but gone historic types for another generation. He was a gold mine. He became a key figure in the revival of an interest in traditional small boats, especially those that rowed nicely, and a great deal of amateur boatbuilding, which he incidentally held to be an essential aspect of our small craft heritage, was helped along. He provided a context and continuity that made small boat projects, often undertaken alone, on a tight budget and without the help of an experienced boatbuilder or nearby museum, enjoyable. And along the way he did his best to unburden the boatbuilding trade of much of its mystery.

What the early readers were being treated to was the Gardner Way. And it doesn't exactly throw itself in one's way. Over time, through a diverse series of articles, the Gardner Way with things emerged.

The Gardner Way was an introduction to a sensibility. It gave flesh and bone to much that was gone, or fast disappearing. It was as much about attitude as it was about things. His writing brought to small boats what a conductor can bring to a piece of music. And his books contain a good deal of this writing. Writing that is, it seems to me, best approached in a casual way, an article here, an article there. Each a little walks. Each refining an appreciation of something already liked. As a matter of fact I can already see our new Garner fan coming along, enjoying a series of supposedly 'how-to' articles that have mysteriously transformed themselves into finely crafted essays on a variety of subjects, especially since such a piece might follow a no nonsense instructions on a plywood work skiff that will get the job done in some alongshore fishery, the historical and the ultra-practical cheek by jowl.

So if you haven't read John Gardner, or you have a friend who hasn't, maybe this little piece will help the project along.

Books by John Gardner: Building Classic Small Craft, The Dory Book, More Building Classic Small Craft, Classic Small Craft You Can Build, Wooden Boats To Build And Use, and the Durant book, The Adirondack Guide Boat, should be included. And it probably won't be long before Mystic Seaport comes up with a John Gardner Reader, or something along those lines, something that pulls together articles that reveal the amazing literary skill that is a part of his writing.

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