Revisiting Rebecca

A Gannon & Benjamin schooner launched in 2001 is the focus of a new art book.

The July–August 2001 edition of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine was a big seller. The cover featured a late-twilight photograph by Alison Shaw of a sailing vessel braced by supports inside a boatbuilding shed, her hull gleaming in work lights that shone like quasars.

Below the waterline, you could see the planks of the wooden hull slatting aft from the stem of her bow; her bottom, though primed, was not yet painted with a finish coat as her brilliant white topsides were, and thus the planking showed through. This photograph is well known on the Vineyard now. It can still hang in Vineyard art galleries, as it’s become a latter-day emblem for the offshore values of tradition and industry that endure on Martha’s Vineyard, where this boat was built and launched before a crowd of more than four hundred on a sparkling afternoon in early May, nine years ago.

What makes the picture so striking, I think, is that though there’s no one in it, the portrait is filled with energy and anticipation. It’s clear the boat – a sixty-foot schooner named Rebecca of Vineyard Haven, photographed on the night before she was moved to the waterfront, where days later she would be christened and launched – is not yet rigged, nor even quite finished. But she still looks as if she can’t wait to go into the water, raise her sails, and get underway.

This year not only marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the magazine, but also anniversaries for Rebecca of Vineyard Haven – the start of her tenth summer under sail – and for the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, which designed and built her. This is its thirtieth anniversary of building, restoring, and repairing wooden boats, plank-on-frame, the old-fashioned way. And it’s also the moment when Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha’s Vineyard (Vineyard Stories, 2010) will reach bookstores on the Island and across the country.

Alison and I submitted the story to the magazine in 2001 to celebrate the launch of Rebecca, which had occurred only eight weeks before the magazine appeared on the newsstands. The launch was front page news on the Vineyard – the schooner was the largest sailing vessel to have been built on the Island since the election of Abraham Lincoln 140 years before – and her construction, which was supposed to have taken a year and a half, actually took three and a half for reasons laced with surprise and drama: A little more than halfway through the project, the man who commissioned the schooner had filed for bankruptcy, the court had put the boat up for auction, and a couple from Scotland had bought Rebecca for $750,000 and saw her through to completion and launch.

As I look back on this story nearly ten years afterward, I recall its fundamental purpose: Alison’s pictures would show something of what it takes to build a schooner of wood that could, with an experienced crew, easily sail around the world. And my text would set the stage for a forthcoming book by showing how Vineyard Haven, in the second half of the twentieth century, had become a nexus for the wooden-boat community on the eastern seaboard, with Gannon & Benjamin keeping the older boats of Vineyard Haven in good sailing condition and adding new ones to the coastwise fleet every year. But the few big-city publishers to whom I proposed the idea of the book were confounded by the premise – an art book about the building of a big wooden boat? – and soon after her launch, on another sparkling day, there came September 11. For a long while afterward, nobody seemed to be in the mood for a book like Schooner.

In the intervening nine years, Rebecca of Vineyard Haven went on to fulfill her promise. She sailed up and down the East Coast twice, from the West Indies to Maine; competed in a handful of classic yacht races, winning two; crossed the Atlantic and sailed the Irish and English coastlines; and then cruised the Mediterranean for two years before returning to Dorset on the Channel coast, where, after giving the Scottish family of Pamela and Brian Malcolm ten happy years on the water, she is now for sale.

Gannon & Benjamin has gone on to restore or build thirty-five more boats since Rebecca, including Juno, an even larger schooner, for the family of Robert Soros of New York (and Chilmark). And Schooner finally found a publisher in Vineyard Stories, an independent publishing company in Edgartown founded in 2005 by Jan Pogue and her husband, the late John Walter, who understood the whole purpose of the book from the moment they first heard of it: to celebrate the building of Rebecca and the singular skills of Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon, in a world where such things and people are far too uncommon. 

Tom Dunlop is the author of Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha’s Vineyard, with photographs by Alison Shaw (Vineyard Stories, 2010).