Mystic Seaport Lighthouse

Building Traditional Boats into the Future

John Gardner's legacy lives on
by Elizabeth Yerkes

It’s a freezing Thursday night and few lights sparkle on the dark Avery Point campus.

It feels as if someone is bowling gusts of wind at my ankles and face. In the distance, windows from the small, clapboard shed throw a few scarves of white light onto the frozen grass. Foghorns and navigational buoy bells sound their warnings to sailors.

My footsteps crunch along the path to the little white workshop.

Inside the John Gardner Chapter of the Traditional Small Craft Association shed is a whole different story. The warm, bright shop is redolent with freshly cut pine, fir and redwood. Two of the 15 active members are busy building boats that they’ll row in any weather once finished.

John Maxson works full-time at Yardney Technical Products, but finds several nights a week to work on his modified Faering dinghy. He is vice president of the club that at its high-water mark had 70 members.

"I’ll have put about 300 hours into this one when it’s done," said Maxson as he fitted a seatplank into the hull. It’s the second Faering-type design Maxson has built in the past two years. It is also one of about 20 boats that members have crafted there since the club’s creation in the mid-1990s.

The club’s focus is not just building boats, though. The club was started to educate the wider community about traditional small craft. These are the kind of fishing and sport vessels that kept New England ports and harbors working from America’s earliest days.

"I’ll use mine for gunkholing, or exploring places that powerboats or larger boats can’t," said Maxson.

The 100-pound flat bottom boat will allow Maxson to pole and paddle in shallows and coves, while he crabs, fishes or just looks at some of the area’s least-visited waterways.

"We also do a lot of repairs, rebuilds and restorations here," said Behney.

An impressive array of power and hand-tools fills the shop. As impressive is the collective knowledge and support that these amateur boatbuilders share with each other.

"You don’t have to know anything about boatbuilding to start," said Behney, "just have $15 for membership, an interest in boats and common sense."

In keeping with its educational mission, the club stays in touch with several area boat-building and marine-oriented schools such as the International Yacht Restoration School, Newport, R.I., and The Sound School in New Haven.

A branch of the National Association of Traditional Small Craft, the chapter was named for John Gardner, who was born in 1910 and raised in Maine. Gardner graduated from Columbia University in 1932, and after decades of working in boatyards, he retired to work at Mystic Seaport for 26 years, building up its small boat program.

Eleanor Watson stands beside the dory built and named for her in 1999. Watson founded the Groton-based John Gardner chapter of the Traditional Small Craft Association. Press photo by Elizabeth Yerkes.

Gardner wrote for a magazine called The Maine Coast Fisherman, which is now called The National Fisherman. Tim Weaver, a boat fan, wrote that Gardner not only was a boat builder but also an articulate and technical writer.

"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," wrote Weaver.

Gardner wrote several books, including, "Building Classic Small Craft," "The Dory Book," "Wooden Boats To Build And Use," and "The Adirondack Guide Boat."

Some of the many designs he put into his books and articles include the Marblehead gunning dory and Moosabec Reach Boat, the four-oared gig American Star (the oldest documented American built small boat), the ancient Gaspe Flat and the Maine Reach Boat. Gardner’s credo was that the future of wooden boats lies with their use.

And to that end, the Club makes it a point to get out on the water and row.

Every year, club members row in the Boats Books and Brushes and Celts and Currachs events in New London. In the latter, experienced rowers instruct neophytes how to row the currach, a light wood-framed boat covered in tar and canvas. Another regular venue is the Small Craft Weekend and WoodenBoat Show at Mystic Seaport every June. Club members have raced in the Mystic River Springtime Row, the Hull Snow Row in March, Slocum River Regatta, Blackburn Challenge and the American Star Race. They also clean up Pine Island each year.

"We’re also trying to get back to our regular outings," said Behney, who, as new president, is pulling to increase membership and to revive year-round rowing on Sunday mornings.

©2008 The Westerly Sun, January 15, 2008

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