July 5, 2013Posted by Bernard Baskin
I grew up in a boating family. Every July I was sent on a week-long sailing course in the Swedish archipelago. Swedes are a hardy, sea faring people and I remember one particular “summer” when I was tossed into 11 degree waters for a routine swimming test. Besides me, none of the other kids balked at the temperature, but it was a traumatizing experience to say the least. As was having to rig the boat in the pouring rain, dressed as if I were soon to commence an Antarctic expedition. However, as soon as I clambered into my little Laser, the skies suddenly cleared and I was skimming over smooth waters, feeling like I ruled the world, at all of age 9.
Over the years I got pretty chummy with a variety of boats. They were often used more frequently than cars as our mode of transport since most of our family friends would decamp to their summer homes on the water each year. Big boats, little boats, Sunseeker yachts, zippy little Rivas, I loved them all… But my absolute favorite was a turquoise dinghy. It was hand built by a neighbor and I was allowed to use it whenever I wanted.
All these childhood memories came flooding back recently when I happened upon the website of Artisan Boatworks. This Maine based boatmaker uses time-honoured traditions to craft wooden daysailers, rowboats and motor cruisers up to 50 feet, using rediscovered original blueprints and exquisite woods such as cedar and mahogany.
Hailing from a Maine sailing family, owner and master builder Alec Brainerd‘s first boat was a row boat, and when I spoke to him recently he recalled long summers spent cruising on the family schooner around Cape Rosier. Growing up on the water he paid his dues, happily scrubbing and painting keels and hulls, teaching sailing at Boy Scout Camp and studying navigation skills.
Years later, a journey from Maine to the US Virgin Islands as First Mate on a 137’ schooner would spark his love for sailing around the world and cement the course his life would take. Over the coming years, he would traverse the globe in a variety of races and yacht deliveries. In 1997, he competed in a vintage yacht race from NYC to Falmouth aboard a wooden yacht built in 1914. He won first place.
So what it is about wooden boats that capture people’s hearts? There seems to be a resurgence towards anything vintage, and indeed, wooden boats appreciate in value. Alec and his team of carpenters, finishers and riggers incorporate modern epoxy coatings and adhesives to ensure the timeless classics they build are fully outfitted for high performance on the water. They also offer museum quality restoration services and mooring-to-mooring storage. These are truly special, heirloom quality beauties. The designs of Alec’s boats owe their provenance to yachting greats such as Nathanael Herreshoff, Starling Burgess and John Alden, and have garnered acclaim from aficionados around the world.
Alec explains that the racing boats of yore were not very hardy and only lasted a decade or so before they were put to pasture for retirement. About 50% of his business comes from restoring and maintaining vintage boats, which their owners view as treasures to be passed down through generations to come. Some are over 100 years old and rebuilt two or three times over. Each is unique and requires a bespoke approach in order to best preserve the integrity of the original structure.
Alec himself bought a fixer-uper in his 20’s and partly went to boat building school to learn how to restore it. He’s now come full circle and sits on the board of this school, The Apprenticeshop in Maine, and has a team of 12 boat builders working for him.
Boat building is a labor intensive process that requires not only precision, technical skill and accuracy, but also an artistic eye to get a sense of the curves and lines that make up the aesthetics. I’m fascinated by the research that goes along with replicating and restoring old boats – how do they get hold of the old blue prints? Alec explains that sourcing is one of his favorite parts of the job – researching and tracking down archives, talking to generations of boat makers and piecing together the methodology. He also loves the relationships that are forged with the customers; many end up becoming like extended family, with Alec entrusted to take care of their ‘children’!
Having sailed many long voyages and conquered many a sea, these days Alec prefers a leisurely day cruise on a motorboat with his wife and two young kids, citing his home in Maine as one of the most beautiful spots on earth. As for me, there are definitely unchartered waters to explore. I liken being on a boat to being in a state of meditation. Boats have a way of giving your conscious mind a break, whether you are crewing or merely enjoying the ride, I find that they release pent up anchor when I’m feeling knotty.
*Photos by Jamie Bloomquist, Alison Langley and Jane Kurko