This book is about a family, the sea, and the art of boatbuilding. Anyone who has spent time in or around a boatyard understands the marriage between family and boatbuilding. Just as wood breathes and expands over time, so does the boatyard. With its workers, its love of an art, generations of young and old, it is a family. Joel White and the story of his last boat embody all of this, which is beautifully told in Douglas Whynot’s book, A Unit of Water, a Unit of Time — Joel White’s Last Boat.
Yes, that Joel White, the son of E.B. White. A gifted writer of the essay, famed for his children’s stories and as a sometimes farmer in Blue Hill, Maine, E. B. White wrote about what he observed and shared it with the world. He was also a sailor. Sailing fulfilled E.B. White’s passion for the wind and the boats that are powered by it. He passed that passion onto his son, Joel, at a very young age.
The story begins at Center Harbor in Brooklin, Maine. It is June 1996, and it is a launching day at the Brooklin Boat Yard. As Whynot points out, days like these are special, and today is no different. “Launching days are big events, after all, a time when the work of the year is revealed and the dreams of the owners hopefully come true.”
On this day, two Center Harbor 31s, Graceand Linda,are all decked out with a wreath of ribbon and flowers placed on their bows. The boats are the product of the design work of Joel White, who began his career as a boat builder forty years earlier, constructing wooden lobster boats. Learning the skills of boat building working for Arno Day, a revered name in boats back then and even today, White eventually purchases the Brooklin Boat Yard from Day. Here begins White’s dream to design and build his own boats.
Whynot’s focus though is not on the past, but on his time spent at the boatyard over the course of two years. White was spending most of his time designing boats, while his son Steve managed the operations of the boatyard. Whynot takes the reader and steps into the boat shed, a silent observer, listening and watching as heirlooms are designed and then built, watching White draw lines with precision, care and love.
The reader is immersed in wood chips and dust, long days and even longer nights until the completion of a project, schedules and more schedules, and, of course, conversations about all things boats off and on the water. Stories about designers from the past (Herreshoff, Gardner and Crealock) spring to life while White, ever obsessed with the linear look and movement of lines upon the water, begins designing his masterpiece, the W-76, a wooden racing yacht.
Being the son of such a famed writer as E.B. White had to be difficult, but with Whynot’s approach, the reader can easily picture the younger White shrugging his shoulders with a slight smile, dismissing it and perhaps answering, “He was my dad, and we certainly shared a passion to create, he had his way and I had mine.” Whynot captures the singularity of two lives, but more importantly the vital connectedness the two had during their time together.
But with most stories there is usually the proverbial “unseen moment” coming. That moment comes in a diagnosis of cancer, which White receives in late 1998. And what was White’s response after the diagnosis? He went back to work. Amidst the hospital trips for treatments, White was in the midst of designing the W-76, and would be doing this for as long as his mind and body would hold out. This boat would ultimately become White’s signature on an industry and on a place.
In one of his essays, E.B. White writes about a sailboat, “If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most.” This book embraces that sentiment by telling the story of a man and the design of his last boat. But it’s also a story about a craft derived from the sea, handed down from the aged and passed onto their young. It is a beautiful story told by an adept writer keenly aware of his surroundings, and certainly up to the task of such an important story. A story about a man’s dream to place himself into everything he created, and does it well to the very end.
So, it is fitting that Whynot would end the book the same as it began, with the launching of a boat. It is launching day at Brooklin Boat Yard, and Joel White’s designed W-76, named Wild Horses, sits surrounded by workers, spectators, owners and family. The day has come, and Joel White’s last boat is readied for its first voyage. Whynot writes, “It’s been said that E.B. White wrote to communicate a love of the world. Perhaps the lines of Joel White’s boats can stand for his love of the world. If such a feeling is in a work such as Charlotte’s Web, can it not also be inherent in the sculptural composition of curved lines that are a boat? This seems possible, mysterious and wonderful, and may be the reason why Joel White’s lines can be called heartbreakingly beautiful.”
I think E.B. White would have agreed and would have loved this book, I know I did.
Doubleday Publishing, 1999, Hardcover, $23.95