Where Dream Boats Float

LOCATION-October 2012
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards

It’s always been the smallest boats in a cove or harbor—the nutshell dinghies and tenders with oars left lying across the seat—that, for me, steal the scene. I imagine an old man and the sea. Or in the glinting sunlight on the water, a regatta of sailing dinghies in the distance can look like some sort of color dance in the wind, a ballet of butterflies.

All’s quiet in Brooklin the morning we drive into town. Not many people are about, except at the late-1800s, brick red Brooklin General Store where people are stopping in for coffee and sandwiches. Peter Frank Edwards is along—a photographer who has built a few boats in his time. Right now, he’s got a half-finished flat-bottomed Louisiana pirogue that’s been underway for a while in his backyard shed in South Carolina. Maybe someday we’ll paddle around the bayou. Maybe someday I’ll build a boat of my own. To consider the wooden boat possibilities in Maine, we’ve come to the Blue Hill Peninsula, where people seem to be building boats around every cove along Blue Hill Bay and Eggemoggin Reach. Take Eric Jacobssen, whom we meet in his North Brooklin Boats workshop not far up a dirt road from his sign on Route 175. He has two boats underway, including a gleaming, red-hulled Sunshine sailboat that he explains is made of wood, fiberglass, and epoxy. Smells of resin and paint fill the air and neatly organized pegboards hung with tools line the wall. It’s a tidy shop. Formerly a carpenter in New York City who lived on a 42-foot sailboat, Jacobssen says the Brooklin-published WoodenBoat magazine inspired his first visit to this slice of Maine. “My wife and I ate sandwiches down at Center Harbor by the Brooklin Boat Yard,” he says. He immediately knew they would stay. Before we go, the craftsman ticks off the names of several other boat builders in town who are the “real deal” and worth meeting. (Boats aside, I later find out that Jacobssen is the same guy who makes the popular Korean-style kimbap sushi on Saturdays at the Blue Hill Farmers’ Market.)

“Downtown” Brooklin includes the general store, the Friend Memorial Library across the road, and several small shops and galleries, including Betsy’s Sunflower, which reminds me of a shotgun-style house in the South (the owner relocated from Florida), and is stocked with kitchen and garden gadgets, and stacks of signed books by Maine authors. A short drive down Reach Road is the three-story, gray-green Odd Fellows Hall at the turn for the formidable Brooklin Boat Yard. At the intersection, three cyclists have leaned their bicycles against the front porch of the Cave and are peeling off their helmets and gloves. Inside the gourmet food store are chocolates and cheese, wine, freshly made sandwiches, and espresso drinks by Brooklin microroaster Bucklyn Coffee. A surprising find in the tiny town, this Cave is easily as hip as any eatery in Portland, and at least a dozen customers are inside when we file in at lunchtime.

More sloops to see…

I’ve long had the Eric Dow Boat Shop on my list of boat builders I’d like to visit. We stop in to find Dow, a sturdy-built man with a thick shock of blond hair, among the resin dust of his wood-floored shop on Reach Road. He’s been building boats since the 1970s and says he doesn’t mind visitors pulling up to see the shop, which was once his grandfather’s garage. While we’re chatting, a couple of family dogs scamper past, and I take a closer look at the wooden sailboat on sawhorses in the center of the room. The Haven 12 1/2 day sailer is a beautiful craft with gleaming wood rails that was built from a design by Joel White, the founder of the nearby Brooklin Boat Yard. Dow explains that the buyer wants to put the boat in the water the following week, so he’ll be working through the afternoon on the paint and other finishing touches. “Come back tomorrow and it’ll look even better,” he says. Meanwhile, Dow starts offering suggestions for other boat builders to visit, and I get a sense of the high regard that these guys have for one another and for the boats they build.

Over at the Mountain Ash House—a bed-and-breakfast where airy guestrooms are named for the blue, white, and straw-colored decor of the interior—Susan Vanderlin is pulling a tray of just-baked cookies from the oven. The artist and innkeeper keeps two horses in an adjacent barn, and informs us that the peninsula has beautiful riding trails and guests at the farmhouse inn can arrange to bring a horse. A couple from Massachusetts who have stayed in the inn’s carriage house for a week say the highlight was getting a peek at the seaside property where author E.B. White once lived and wrote. It turns out that friends of the current owners brought them to the private, unmarked residence. “We even found the spot where Fred was buried,” one of the guests tells us, referring to the famed author’s daschund. (I appreciate the reference: “Bedfellows” is one of my favorite White essays and it includes descriptions of the irascible Fred.)

The next morning, fog cloaks the waterfront and the air is heavy with mist at the 64-acre campus of the WoodenBoat School. In the school’s large brick barn, smells of brewing coffee mix with the sawdust. Dozens of people—students and instructors—are in motion in various rooms. One class is building traditional canvas-covered canoes, and in another students are honing their woodworking skills by building wooden toolboxes using dovetail joinery. Students may stay in dormitories or camp, and meals are included. While walking around the historic campus that was once a farm, we meet the school’s director, Rich Hilsinger, who has the trim stature and the tan of a man who is at home on the water. His enthusiasm for the school—an institution he first got to know as a student back in 1983—led him to become the shop manager and then, years later, he was named the director. Hilsinger seems to know everyone in the classrooms that morning—students and instructors—and points out a couple from Montreal who is taking a weeklong class together for their vacation. The WoodenBoat School offers an alternative to “going somewhere and lying on a beach,” he says. Students get to build something by hand and the location “knocks their socks off.” This summer, Hilsinger himself  was one of the 700 or so students when he completed a carving class.

Meanwhile, at the campus waterfront, Greg Anrig from New York City is one of several high school and college-age students in a sailing class who are hanging out in the boathouse, waiting for the wind to pick up and the fog to clear on Great Cove. In the fog’s hush, everyone is looking out across the school’s fleet of large and small craft—nutshells, ketches, sloops, and skiffs—and pointing out their favorites. It has got to be one of the finest stretches of water in the country for wooden boat watching.

Hop in the boat? YES!

In conversations around Brooklin, we keep hearing the name of boat designer and builder Doug Hylan. I’m curious about his work, and we drive a few miles on Reach Road to the D.N. Hylan and Associates shop in West Brooklin on the Benjamin River. The water is filled with yachts. We meet one of the Hylan boat builders, Ellery Brown, and ask about current projects. I had heard about a restoration they had done of an early 1900s sardine boat that once plied the waters off Eastport. “Would you like to see it?” Ellery asks. At first, I imagine that he’s kidding, but within a couple minutes we’ve all hopped in a skiff at the dock and are tooling around the bay on our way to the 65-foot, two-masted Grayling. Fish are no longer loaded into the belly of this long, sleek craft converted into a gentleman’s cruising yacht by the Hylan shop. The boat is a dandy, and it’s somewhat hard to imagine that it was once a working boat, especially when you get close to the original hand-carved swirling scrollwork on the bow, and see the fine, refurbished cabinetry and well-cushioned furnishings below. Back onshore, we have the chance to meet Doug Hylan himself, whose office is in a boathouse-style building perched at the very edge of the salty river. We talk about the new technologies used in boat design, and he says he’s encouraged by the young people around Brooklin who are interested in boats. “You should have been here on July Fourth when the boys and girls had peapod races,” he says. “The rowing was fierce.”

The next day, in the bright sunshine of a Saturday morning, we follow signs to the docks near the Atlantic Boat Company at Brooklin’s Flye Point. We soon see Chip Angell, owner of the Brooklin Inn. We had met him earlier in the week at the inn’s restaurant, and Angell invited us to watch one of the Shellback sailboat races that he and other local boat owners occasionally hold on Saturdays. Five of the one-man sailboats are participating, and we arrive in time to see the men help each other hoist a boat from the beach into the water before the start. Not long after we walk up to the group to say hello, it’s clear that we’ll be the day’s only spectators. Some of the skippers tell me they built their 11-foot dinghies themselves, and a young man with a beard is sailing the first Shellback dinghy ever built (another Joel White design). One of the competitors, Jon Hopkins, offers to let us motor about in his skiff so we can get closer to the action during the race. We zip up lifejackets and take him up on the offer. Soon the “race” out to a distant buoy and back is on. A starboard tack has the right of way, and it’s slow going in Herrick Bay on a morning with little wind. The triangular sails are raised and the men work some serious angles while sitting low in the boat and leaning forward.

After several minutes of puttering in the skiff alongside the line of boats, we return to the dock to watch the finish. “Boats and the library are really the pulse of Brooklin,” says Sue Wright, who’s positioned at the end of the dock with an air horn. She’s the “race committee” for the morning, so she’s announcing the start and finish, and recording the winners. Knowing well the pace the races can sometimes take, she also brought along a knitting project and a magazine. Tomorrow, she says, she’ll be taking her fresh apple-walnut cake to a town celebration at the century-old library. The results of the silent auction of books by local authors will be announced at the event, and she’ll be watching that closely since she has entered several bids. We turn our attention back to the boats and buoys, and she sounds the horn as a gray-hulled boat crosses the finish line in the lead position—the initial heat’s winning sailor just happens to be her husband. Before long, we have to move on and return home, but Wright said the sailing would continue for a while, as it always does in Brooklin.

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