SOUTHWEST HARBOR – Ever since he was a little boy, Richard Stanley has been immersed in a world of the finest craftsmanship at the hands of some of Mount Desert Island’s top wooden boatbuilders.
Today, he has become something of a standard-bearer for the art and craft of wooden boatbuilding, through Great Harbor Boatworks, the business he owns with his wife, Lorraine.
“During my time in my father’s shop, I learned from working on lots of different boats that were built by lots of different builders: Wilbur Morse, Charles Morse, Bobby Rich, Ronald Rich, Nevins, Herreshoff, Bob Direktor, Raymond Bunker, Hinckley and Farnham Butler, as well as my father,” Stanley writes in a short biography. I learned how they did things – how they put things together, what worked and what didn’t. From each job, I’d incorporate what I learned into my new work. Even sanding bottoms, you get a sense of different hull shapes: you can see what works and what doesn’t, what looks good and what doesn’t.”
At age 50, Stanley is a tall man with a thatch of graying hair, gray stubble, and a gruff voice that fetches up deep in his throat. His back is hunched, his gait is stiff, and his eyes have a preoccupied look. All traits combined give the initial impression that he’s taciturn. He’s not. He’s a sweet guy and a great storyteller. Although he has a wild background from his younger years, he’s mostly all about wooden boats, thanks to a passion he inherited from his father, wooden boatbuilder Ralph Stanley.
“When I was a little kid, I just wanted to be with my father all the time, and I wanted to be a boatbuilder. That’s all I wanted to do,” Richard says. “So I was with him as much as I could be.”
Over the past two years, he has been passing on his skills to a local student, Ryan Snow.
“That’s what I hope to find more of in the future, local kids who would like to learn,” Richard says. “It makes me really happy.”
For his efforts, he was a recently awarded a $4,000 grant from the Maine Arts Commission in its traditional apprenticeship category. That award followed on a grant, from the same commission, of $13,000 in its individual artist fellowship program.
Last year, the yard received a visit from Governor and First Lady Paul and Ann LePage, at the end of which the governor humorously offered to sign on as Richard’s apprentice once his term was done.
These distinctions come at a difficult time for the boatbuilding industry in general, as builders of pleasure boats strive to maintain and build new markets while the economy continues to founder. In an industry that has turned mainly to fiberglass and composites, such recognition signals the value of Stanley’s heritage. The company’s facebook page is a testament – with more than 11,0000 “likes” and streams of comments in a variety of languages – to the enthusiasm inspired by the Stanley roster of boats.
Now, Great Harbor Boatworks is waiting out the “great recession.” The yard has storage and rebuilding projects that are paying the bills. But Richard’s real goal is to get back to building boats – something small, no more than 30 feet long, a simple design, inviting to the average boater, pleasing to the eye.
“That’s where my passion is,” he says. “Designing and building boats. It’s the artist in me.”
From the age of 5 or 6, Richard loved being at his father’s shop. Unbidden, Richard would be out back, where boats were stored, happily scrubbing bottoms. He got to sweep up shavings, knock in the bungs, grease the ways, and do some sanding.
His father’s first shop was in the old shop out back of Ralph’s grandmother’s house, on Main Street in Southwest Harbor.
“I’d be up there as often as I could, pretty much every day,” he says. “And that little shop, every day, was cold and narrow and dark. He built one 44-foot lobsterboat in that barn. He had to pull it outdoors and put the top on.” He laughs. “They had Playboy centerfolds all along the walls. Gee, I loved that.”
The planer sat at the front of the shop, and a little door was cut into the wall at the height of the planer, with a hinged cover over it.
“You could send things through the planer inside and, unless it was a short piece, you had to go outside and retrieve it from the outside and shove it back through. But it worked.”
As Richard got older, their relationship could be frustrating. He’s always admired his father’s talents, and still goes to him for advice occasionally. (Recently, he asked his dad to take a look at a half-model he had carved, and learned that the bow could perhaps be made a bit fuller.)
But as a kid, there were many times when he was eager to dive into the next stage of learning, long before he was actually allowed to.
“I was using the bandsaw at my junior high shop class before I was allowed to use the bandsaw at my father’s shop,” he says. “He was very cautious, always worried about me getting my hand crushed or cut.”
So he learned by watching.
“My father had a crew that had been with him numerous years,” Stanley says. “I would watch them. I also went to other yards around when I was a kid. There were 14 different boatyards. And I would go to those places and watch them. I’d stay back, out of the way, and watch. And when I saw an opportunity to help, I would, as long as I wasn’t going to be in their way. Ronald Rich, you could go and watch him – at least I could. Some people he didn’t like at all being there. I could go in there and watch, but I couldn’t touch anything. And that was okay. I’d spend a lot of time there.”
The Southwest Boat Corporation was just down the road from the second shop his father built, in 1973.
“They’d be working down there on various types of boats,” Stanley recalls. “They were doing a lot of repair work on sardine carriers and things like that. I’d go down there, and they’d be tearing these big bows of these sardine carriers apart and putting on new stems and forefoots and new deck pieces and tearing out the sterns and everything. I would watch the guys doing that. There were a few guys I knew, and I could give them some help once in a while.”
He jumped at every chance to go with his father to the other boatyards.
“I just loved it,” he says. “I got to go to Jimmy Rich’s. They were building a powerboat over there one time, and they had just got the rabbet all cut and chiseled out. And they were sandpapering it! They were sandpapering a rabbet! And I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before!’ That’s how fussy Jimmy Rich was about building boats.”
At a machine shop and boatyard on tiny Little Island, in Bass Harbor, where his father had metal fittings made, Stanley remembers “great big lathes and milling machines and all this junk everywhere, and just a little path through there and a little area to work at the machine. Otherwise it was just stacked with metal junk. You’d go in there and ask Father Power for something, and Father Power would go to his junk, and he knew right where everything was. He had a few fingers missing, you know. He’d dig around and he’d pull it out, and, there it is! It was really fun to go to places like that.”
Once in a while, he got to visit Raymond Bunker, at the Bunker and Ellis shop in Manset. One time, when Richard was in high school, Bunker popped into the Ralph Stanley shop.
“I was making this half-model of a powerboat,” Stanley says. “At the time, Raymond Bunker was still building boats. I don’t know why he came over, but he comes in and he sees me sanding on my half-model. And he says” – Stanley adopts a big, gruff voice – “’Let me see that, sonny!’ So I let him have it. He looks at it. He says, ‘Huh! It’s too wide! Got the right idea though!’ Another time, he comes in and I was working away – this was later on after he retired. He comes in, chewing his pipe, and stands around looking. He’d ask Ralph a few questions – ‘How much deadrise to that sheer you got?’ – you know, stuff like that. And he’d be watching me. And he says, ‘Ralph, you have a few more boys like that, you won’t have to work!’ Another day, Raymond comes in. I’m left-handed, and I was painting a boat and he sees I’m using my left hand to paint. And he says, ‘Sonny!’ He’s in his 80s, so I guess he had the right to call me sonny. He says, ‘Sonny! You’re putting that paint on backwards!’”
As he got older, Richard learned a lot from taking apart derelict boats and from repairing and rebuilding the many wooden lobsterboats that the older generation had at the time.
“I worked on boats that were built by old Eulie and Frank Rich,” who had a boat shop in Richtown. Their narrow, full-bottomed boats rolled quite a bit, and fishermen called them Richtown Rollers. “I worked on boats that Ronald Rich and Bobby Rich and Jimmy Rich built. I worked on boats that Raymond Bunker built.”
He recalls taking out some bow planks from a boat that Bunker and Ellis built.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he says with a laugh. “The forward floor timber in the boat was still square, right off the bandsaw. It wasn’t beveled. The forward edge just fit against the planking, and the rest of it was just all gap. They just put it right in and put the screws in the corner. I said, ‘Jesus Christ, we’ve been overdoing this forever! My God, this boat’s how old here, and there’s never been any problem with that?’ I said, ‘My God, there ain’t no sense to doing what we’ve been doing!’ But then it comes time for me to put the floor timbers in. I think about that, and I’m saying, ‘Eh, I guess I’d better fit it.’”
In 1982, he graduated from The Boat School in Eastport. In 1983, he began to receive a name credit with the construction of the schooner Equinox. In 1986, he acquired a quarter interest in his father’s business.
“One time, we got a Friendship sloop planked up, and my father says, ‘Well, the boat needs the interior’ – and he leaves,” Richard recalls. “So – there my interior career started. I went and looked at the other boats. I’d watched him do it before. A lot of times he did a lot of the interior work himself, in the evenings and nights when I was around. I’d seen that and I had some idea, and I looked at other boats we had in the yard to see how he did it. And I went from there. Now,” he lets loose a wry chuckle, “was that the most efficient way to learn how to do that? Probably not. But probably it stuck with me a lot better.”
If it sounds like he worked a lot, he did.
“There were years there I did a lot of partying. But I was still there to work. I was always waiting for the police to come,” he laughs.
Gradually he became the shop boss, teaching many employees over the years.
“A guy off the street is usually much more teachable than a guy who has worked at other yards or a guy who’s gone to a boat school, because they know the way they’ve been taught,” he says. “Whereas there can be 12 different ways to do things in boatbuilding. I’ve done most of these 12 different things, and I know which one works the best and gives me the results I’m looking for. Other people are looking for other results and other ways can work better for them. But in my shop, you’ve got to do it this way. And it can be a hard for people to accept. So you have to retrain them. But if you get someone of the street, they’re more apt to listen to you.”
“He’s spent his entire career dealing with a crew of whoever shows up,” says Lorraine. “So it’s not like he needs a crew of highly trained technicians. He needs people who can follow directions. And with that he can build a boat.”
“And people don’t want to argue with me,” he jokes, being a big guy.
In the age of fiberglass and composites, wooden boatbuilding is a venture with its ups and downs, Stanley says.
“Around here, there’s a few people who can build wooden boats,” he says. “But it’s something that’s dying out. When I was a kid, there was a fair amount of wooden boatbuilding going on. But it was dying out. Most of these people were old, and only a few were passing it on to other generations. So it’s been a dying thing.”
Stanley recalls a surge of interest in the 1970s, when the idea of building wooden boats had a romantic aura for “back to the land” homesteaders.
“It looks very romantic from the outside, but it’s just a lot of hard work,” he says. “And you have to use a lot of awful chemicals. White lead paste is very toxic and there are lots of different paints and chemicals. So that type of back-to-nature thing was not quite what it looked like. They thought that’s what they wanted to do and they go into it, and then they said, ‘Oh, this isn’t what we thought.’ So that renaissance of wooden boatbuilders kind of died off.”
Richard and Lorraine met one day in 2000, when he was fixing the rudder post box and doing some other repairs on the old wooden tour boat, R.L. Gott, that her father, Kim Strauss, runs from Little Island Marine in the summer.
“I don’t know if it was the day before or the day of her birthday,” Richard says.
“That was the day before,” says Lorraine.
“And I see this young lady walking around and I thought she was attractive,” Richard continues. “At the end of the day, her father and she were together, and we just started talking. I started telling them about how I was building this little Friendship sloop for myself and I was going to work on it that evening. And she showed up with a tin of cookies.”
“Well, you invited us by for a tour,” says Lorraine.
“Well, I remember I invited you for a tour. But that evening you just came over.”
“That might have been Monday evening.”
“I remember it was that evening.”
“Well, anyway, it was pretty quick.”
“It was pretty quick.”
It was oatmeal chocolate chip cookies – Rosemary’ recipe from Frankie’s diner in Ellsworth.
“I felt quite lucky to get it from her,” says Lorraine.
“So then, ‘cause them cookies were really good, we just got along,” Richard says with a mischievous smile.
Lorraine has big, beautiful eyes set in a pixie face and a boyish physique, and she gives the impression of running on high-octane energy. She comes from rusticator roots on Gotts Island, thanks to her father’s grandfather. She spent her childhood summers out there until 1990, when she went off to college, where she studied narrative nonfiction writing and went on to do field studies and internships. After graduation, she took a series of unsatisfying jobs – newsletter editor for a national environmental group, carpenter’s helper, then editor of a free weekly in New York City, which turned out to be, basically, selling ads.
Then she landed a job that was more fruitful. As receptionist for a graphic design firm, also in New York, she took on every project that anyone put before her and was soon learning about some key concepts of running a business, such as corporate identity and branding.
Still, she was tired of the city. So in 1999, so she moved back to MDI. She worked for her father, which is how she happened to spy the man who was fixing her father’s boat.
Apparently, Richard’s presence – the reputation he had developed for himself by that time – was something of an event.
“A lot of people came and went in the yard,” Lorraine says. “But it was, ‘Oh, we’ve got Richard Stanley coming!’ It was an older wooden boat and it needed somebody who knew what they were doing. So I was, like, ‘Who is this guy? What is up?’”
All summer long, Lorraine had noticed a beautiful boat in the harbor named Cinchona.
“I thought it was the prettiest boat out there,” she says. “They said, ‘That’s Richard Stanley. He’s the one who built Cinchona.’ I said, ‘Really? It’s such an incredible boat.’”
Lorraine was quite taken by what she saw and heard.
“He was the first person I’d met, since I’d been back, who seemed like he had a lot going on,” she says. “He was very confident. He seemed to know who he was and what he was doing and why he was doing it. And you could either like it or not. I liked that. He also struck me as being very capable and competent. He grew up around here and hasn’t been away a lot, but he really had an open mind about life in general. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been around people who have been here all their lives and they’re all set and they don’t want to hear it. Richard was curious about all kinds of different topics.”
Lorraine continued to visit Richard at his father’s shop.
“I asked him if he wanted any help – knowing absolutely nothing about boatbuilding,” she says. “I mean, looking at a keel and not knowing how it was supposed to end up in a boat.”
Just like that, he took her on.
“I never dreamed of being a boatbuilder,” she says. “I wanted to be helpful and get to know Richard.” She laughs. “And we didn’t necessarily think it would be a great idea to work with each other and try to be a couple. Who says that’s a good idea?”
At the time, Lorraine was struggling with alcoholism. Richard, 10 years her senior, had emerged from his own wild period, and understood what she was going through. But she also posed something of challenge for him. He kept her working, learning as she went along, at the storage yard or with him in the construction shop.
It took a few years, but after one encounter too many with the law, Lorraine got herself into a substance recovery program, and stuck with it.
“Oh yeah, pretty much the day he met me, he said he hated drinking,” she recalls. “I tried to hide it and I was just forever waiting for the hammer to come down. And I couldn’t understand why it didn’t. He just believed I was a good person. And he kept hoping I would find a better way. I’ll tell you what, he’s got a lot more patience than me or other people. He gives people the benefit of the doubt.”
Although the transition from Ralph W. Stanley, Inc., to Great Harbor Boatworks was probably inevitable, the timing could have been better. For the boatbuilding industry in general, the global financial crisis that began in 2008 resulted in a swift plummet. Industry-wide, things were still in decline in 2009, the year the 1902 Friendship sloop Westwind, which had gone to Ralph Stanley’s shop in 2007 for a complete overhaul, was inched down the ways and towed, then trucked, a few miles to Richard’s new shop.
For Ralph Stanley, a National Heritage Fellow and Boatbuilder Laureate of Maine, it was time to retire, and to pursue his other interests in local history, making fiddles, playing music, getting out on the lobsterboat he built in 1960 for his father, Seven Girls – named for Ralph’s seven sisters – and still do some design. (Historical information about Ralph Stanley is largely sourced from the book Ralph Stanley: Tales of a Maine Boatbuilder, published in 2004 by Craig Milner and Stanley). He had been building boats since 1946, when he launched a 15-foot lapstrake dory, from his first shop. Ralph launched his first lobsterboat, a 28-footer, and his first lobster-style pleasure boat, a 26-footer, in 1953. One or two boats per year came out of Ralph’s shop for the next four decades, many of them still seen in local waters every summer. Ralph built his first sailboat, the Friendship sloop Hieronymus, in 1962. At 50 years old, the sloop is still used by the original owner and his family.
A succession of lobsterboats followed. In 1973, he rebuilt the 1904 Friendship sloop Dictator. That same year, he met the first president of College of the Atlantic, Ed Kaelber, and built a Friendship sloop for him called the Amos Swan. Kaelber ended up investing in the business, enabling Ralph to build a new shop, next to the house he inherited from his father on the Southwest Harbor shore. From then on, Ralph’s career took a turn toward building more Friendship sloops and other pleasure craft.
Ralph suffered a number of serious ailments over the years. As the 1980s and ‘90s wore on, Richard recalls, he took charge, increasingly, of construction, while Ralph continued with design and did select tasks on the projects.
As Richard and Lorraine explored the possibility of taking over the business, it became clear that the purchase would mean closing and selling Ralph’s construction shop on the shore, moving operations to the storage yard in Manset, and changing the business name as a way to reposition Richard as the head of the firm. Under the old Ralph W. Stanley name, people called up expecting to speak with Ralph.
“My father has a great reputation with most people. I think that’s a good thing,” Richard says.
Still, there was something of an eclipse factor in the situation. And the couple wanted to emphasize that, while they would be continuing along the traditional path forged by Ralph, they also have “an eye toward the future and a focus on innovation” and “the best of modern marine technology,” as the company website says.
Then the economy went in the gutter.
Existing storage customers remained with Great Harbor Boatworks, and the business has been sustained by Richard’s longstanding rapport with existing owners.
“We have a business, we have solid, long-term customers,” Lorraine says. “We like them, they like us. And we’ve been able to hang in there, through what’s been a really difficult time for the economy and not a great time for the boatbuilding industry.”
Running the operation has been a learning experience for both. Richard knew how to build boats. Lorraine had some experience with marketing concepts, from her job at the graphics design firm in New York, but had to jump into taking a bookkeeping class.
“For a long time, I’ve seen that people who start small businesses are usually really good at what they do, but they don’t necessarily have a great handle on running a business,” she says. “It’s a real horns-of-a-dilemma thing, because if you devote all your time to being a great businesses person, you’re not doing what you said you want to do when you started your business.”
It didn’t take long for the daily minutiae of running a business took its toll.
“It’s been a struggle for us, getting caught up in the day-to-day of, ‘How are we going to get through this moment?’” she says. “We weren’t able to stand back and say, ‘Wow, this is not so shabby here.’”
As the couple waits out the recession, the company’s Facebook page, which was recently up to 11,736 “likes,” has been a good indicator of the high level of interest people have in the product. It’s a perfect outlet for Lorraine’s penchant for photography and promotion. She continuously documents works in progress and scenic vistas. There’s a photo of Catawampus coming out of the water for another winter, Endeavor getting rigged up to go in, and shots of the elegant brightwork on decks and pilothouse of the elegant yacht Nathaniel. The first of two coats of glossy Epifanes Monourethane deep green is shown off. A detail shot of the mast hoops on the cutter Resolute elicits the comment, “The craftsmanship, the knowledge of proper rigging, the artist eye to see this shot and the ability to capture it. Thank you for sharing.”
Photos of Hieronymous receive 672 likes and a long stream of comments from facebookers around the world:
“Are you already smackin’ your lips thinking about another one?what a girthy gal!!”
“This is Corfou island speaking (Greece).the beauty of this boat is out of any coment.This boat is simply ALIVE.”
“adoro queste Poppe|!!!!!!!!!!!!!muy muy bonito ¡¡¡¡”
There’s quite a bit of back-and-forth among boat enthusiasts about the current rebuild of Mbuoya, a Cautamet, Mass., boat that arrived earlier this year for rehab. The 29-footer, built in 1990, is named after a Tanzanian guide the owner came to know in his travels.
“i am a fibreglass moulder and have done it for a passion for over 30 years,” says one. “just love ur work keep it up”
“Ever try carbide scrapers?” asks another commenter.
Lorraine responds: “We sanded the bottom with sanders hooked up to vacuums and then I vacuumed up the residual mess, which was quite a bit….we sometimes use carbide scrapers. This bottom had had bottom paint rolled over unsanded bottom paint (apparently) and was in need of a solid going-over, which it got. It has always seemed odd to me that people are so willing to give the bottom work to the lowest paid worker in the yard/bidder for the job. That is, after all, the part that keeps the water out.”
The preoccupied look in Richard’s eyes, it turns out, may be pain, in which he is constantly. A certain stiffness and misalignment to his upper body are a giveaway to the accident he was in when he was 17. It was the winter of 1980, and he was a passenger in the backseat of a Subaru station wagon. The car spun out on black ice, hit a tree, was hit by another car, and crashed up against a telephone pole.
“I broke the second, third and fourth vertebrae in my neck, the third in three places and the other ones in one place each,” he says. “It was a miracle I wasn’t paralyzed.”
Stanley came to before help arrived. He got out of the car and began to walk the rest of the way home.
“I was rubbing my neck, going, ‘Oh, my f***ing neck. I gotta go home. I’m hungry,’” he recalls. “My cousin chased me down the road and convinced me to come back because he could see there was something really wrong. He convinced me to come back to the car and sit down.”
It turned out that help was delayed because the accident was the second of two that happened within minutes of each other in Southwest Harbor. Finally, an ambulance from Northeast Harbor arrived, and he was whisked off to the hospital.
“I come to in Bangor and they had this stainless steel bar with these two bolts in my head,” he says. “No one was in the room, other than this other patient. I didn’t know anything, why I was there, what had happened. I was freaking out, with this bar in my head. I was, like, ‘I’m getting out of here.’ So I reached up and I started pulling it off my head, but I couldn’t get the tips of the bolts out of the side of my head.”
He mimes himself struggling, then laughs at the freaked-out reaction he’s getting.
“Oh god, that hurt,” he laughs. “And before I know it, I’m surrounded…”
“Ya think?!” Lorraine expostulates.
“…and pinned to the bed, and they’re taking this bar off my head and they’ve stuck these sandbags around my head and I was like freaking out, ‘Man, this is not right! Let me go!’ And they got this new bar ‘cause I bent that one. They started tightening them bolts in my head. And I’m, like, ‘Holy frig!’ The pressure those bolts make when they go in your head. God, does that hurt! I still feel that pressure today. And they didn’t use the same holes! They made new ones!”
A strangled sound of dismay comes from Lorraine.
“I was livid, man, I was mad!” Richard continues. “They sedated me then. Put me right out. When I came to, though, there was this girl in this wheelchair who had been all stove up in a Trans Am T-top that had rolled over I don’t know how many times. Her legs were wrapped around the T-top and she broke her neck, she broke almost every bone in her body. And she was there because they wanted someone next to me to try to calmly tell me why I was there. She offered to do so, I guess. So she was there when I come to, a nice-looking blonde girl. I was all cast and bandages, but she was a nice-looking girl. I say, ‘Oh, I’ve gone to heaven!’ I was 17 years old. So she told me what she’d gone through and what was going on with me. And it was okay then.”
Richard had an operation. Doctors took a bone from his hip, made new pieces out of it, lined the vertebrae up the way they ought to be, and chinked the pieces around the vertebrae. They drilled holes in the bone, and held it all together with stainless steel nails and wire.
“I could have done the operation myself, you know,” Stanley laughs. “They were just using tools that I use – stainless steel nails and stainless steel wires, and twist them up like bread ties, and get the right tension on them. And all that’s still in there. It all fused together.”
These days, he’s also got degenerative disk disease in his back. His day-to-day tasks don’t help that situation.
“I have to watch what I do now. It put me in the hospital. I lifted a mast up on the horses, and the third time it just screwed up my back. I thought it would get better, but it just got worse and worse, and off to the emergency room I went.”
On a recent afternoon at the yard, Lorraine is painting a hatch for Mbuoya. An employee, Tony Menzietti, is up in the loft, sanding one of the boat’s bench seats and periodically running the shop vac.
In a separate building across the way, Richard and his apprentice, Ryan, are standing in back of a half-built daysailer, which sits on jackstands under Westwind’s hulking hull. Richard is hunched forward, one eye closed, observing the alignment of a plumb bob.
He steps aside and tells Ryan to observe how the bob hangs.
“You keep sighting it,” Richard says. “The problem is, there’s more board on this side than that side. Center it up here. You see that?”
The two shift their attention to the bow and pull out a laser level. The job today is to brace up the hull, then build some staging. They hunt around for scrap lumber for the braces. Ryan carefully uses the bandsaw to shave off an inch or two.
The 19-footer has come along quite a bit since Ryan began his apprenticeship with Stanley, two years previously. Now he’s a high school sophomore and studies Stanley’s moves – just as Stanley must have studied his mentors when he was a teen.
Back at the stern, Stanley judges they might have overcompensated on the way the boat leans.
“Too much angle,” he mutters. “Gotta come more like that.”
Ryan begins to remove the jackstands that have supported the boat up to now, as Stanley wedges the braces against the hull and nails them to footings attached to the floor. Over the next few weeks, they’ll be fitting in the floor timbers and starting on the deck frame.
Stanley’s father drafted the Friendship sloop-inspired design for this boat in 1985. It was the smallest design Ralph had made in 30 years, during which time he built power and sailboats in the 20-foot and 30-foot range. The design came about at the request of a Greening Island summer resident, who owned a Stanley 26 lobster-style yacht built in 1963, the Annie T., and wanted a stable and easy-handling boat for his 15-year-old son. The construction of the boat, dubbed Bucephalus, was documented in a book called Boatbuilder, written by Hope Herman Wurmfeld.
The keel for latest iteration under construction was actually put together at least 15 years ago. When Ryan’s family contacted Richard about an apprenticeship, Richard figured it would be a good project to work on. He’s modified the design so the boat will have an open cockpit, as opposed to the little cuddy cabin his father designed for the early 19-footers. There will still be dry storage up under the bow and under the aft seat.
With the recent grant from the Maine Arts Commission, Richard says, he will be able to buy tools for Ryan. First on the list is a two-inch framing chisel.
Stanley likes teaching. Interviewed in 2011, he wryly said, “I don’t have to pay him, so I’m a much better teacher. It’s much more relaxed – I don’t yell and scream too much.”
“I love wooden boatbuilding because I have a way to be able to imagine the finished product before it’s done, before it even begins,” Richard says. “I can see that boat all finished. And what I love to do mostly is build keels. If I could just do one thing in life, I would just be a wooden boatbuilding keel-making fool. I just like doing that. I like working those big pieces of wood, and I like cutting the rabbets and timber gains and shaping it. I like doing that. My father liked to plank the boats. I like planking boats, too. And I like lining up the planks and making the plank lines come out nice and looking right.”
A boat’s beauty is embodied by its proportions, simplicity, and usefulness.
“What makes it most beautiful is the people enjoying it,” he says. “I thought I’d be able to build lobsterboats my whole life, and then the fiberglass lobsterboat business came in and – no more wooden lobsterboat. There are still some wooden lobsterboats being built, and some people still want wooden lobsterboats. I was just talking with a guy the other day who had been in wooden lobsterboats all his life, then had gone to fiberglass, and he’s having a new wooden boat built because he cannot stand it, and he said he will never step or work in a fiberglass boat again. Just physically hard on the body. They are not the same boat. You take a fiberglass copy of an Arthur Spurling rowing skiff, and you take that same wooden boat, and I can step on the thwart on the wooden one and still have two inches of freeboard. That fiberglass boat, I’ll be taking water on. Another thing is, when you’re rowing that fiberglass boat, and you stop rowing it, that boat dies in the water. You take that wooden boat and you start rowing it, and you stop rowing it, it just” – he pauses for an appreciative chuckle – “keeps on gliding. Yeah. I don’t know what that is. I’m sure there’s someone with a PhD somewhere that can figure that out….Fiberglass is cold, dead material, it’s dense and heavy, and it’s smooth, so you’d think it would carry momentum. But there’s some kind of drag that’s stopping it. I could be a total Looney tune. But the wooden boat, even though the wood is dead, it seems more alive. It carries that momentum. It doesn’t have that drag on it.”
Wooden boats are more comfortable; fiberglass boats have a hard, slapping feel, he says.
“In a powerboat or sailboat situation, the weight of the wood is different than the weight of the glass. You’ve got the hard, heavy, dense wood down the center of the boat. And then you’ve got the hard, dense wood, with the floor timbers, coming up out of the boat. And then you’ve got hard, dense wood for making the frames. But then you’ve got this soft, lighter wood making the planking of the hull. And then the tops are heavy. With fiberglass, you have a thicker, heavier, dense keel in them, but you’ve got that dense, heavy fiberglass going all the way up and then on top as well. So the weight proportions and placements are totally different in a wooden boat than a fiberglass boat. And I think that has a great deal to do with the motion of the boat. The motion of a fiberglass boat will be much snappier. The motion of a wooden boat will be a much softer roll. It will ro-o-o-o-oll and will come back soft, and it won’t snap you. A wooden boat will give you a much softer, nicer ride. And the sound of wood in the water is a whole different thing than the sound of fiberglass in the water.”
A boat’s simplicity can be inviting to the average boater.
“All these fancy, big boats are pretty – and a lot of work,” he says. “It’s exciting to sail on a big boat like that – you’re heeled over and you’re really powering along. But it’s quite exciting to be in a little boat powering along, too. And it’s a lot easier. And you can get into lots of place you can’t get into on a big boat. Smaller boats are more fun to use, I think. There are a lot of people who like their fast race boats, and people who like their big ocean cruising boats. And there are people who like their small boats. So there’s a lot of diversity in there.”
A boat’s proportions are a nuanced affair. The Annie T., with the curvy, low sweep of its sheer and the pleasing proportion of its pilothouse, is an example of a perfect boat. The 26-foot lobster-style pleasure boat was designed and built by Ralph Stanley, and launched in 1963.
“It’s a really beautiful wooden powerboat,” Richard says. “It’s just ultimately, to my eye, correct.”
Another boat might be similar – but just not quite right.
By the same token, the Annie T. is not made for a six-foot-tall person.
“If I go to the Annie T., I can’t stand up in that boat,” he says. “I have to duck. To make it right for a six-foot-tall person, you’d have to change the height of the sheer. But I think that lower sheer is why that boat looks right. Now, if it were a longer boat, if it were just another couple of feet longer, you could make that boat look right by having the higher sheer at the six-foot headroom. But being that length, to make that boat look as beautiful as you can, you can’t make it have six-foot headroom.
“You could make it look pretty all right, by raising the sheer up and making the house a little taller. But you’ve made that boat’s lines not what they should be. Does it ruin the boat? Does it ruin the boat’s handling? No. It makes it more functional. So a lot of times you have to compromise when you’re building boats.”
Richard’s dream is to custom-build boats to his own designs.
“I just like creating, and I think wooden boats are beautiful. I think they feel good in the water under your feet. They are dead wood, but they’re so alive. They have my life in them, my eye and my life, my feel, and that’s what I like. I love to create and build the boat. But I really like seeing them being used. These people [who say], ‘Oh, this boat is too beautiful to be used!’ Noooo! Don’t hurt me – use it!”