Thoughts on the WoodenBoat Show at Mystic Seaport

photos: Katherine Mehls

The people at WoodenBoat Magazine were kind enough to give me press credentials for this year’s show at the end of June. This, combined with my relative proximity to the venue, Mystic Seaport, made it possible for me to attend over the three days.

Mystic and WoodenBoat have been important presences in my life since the mid 1970’s. I first visited the Seaport in 1974, on a field trip from “Boat School.” In 1975-79 I lived in Brooklin Maine, and was there when WoodenBoat moved down the road from Brooksville to Naskeag Point. Over the years I’ve re-encountered them in recurrent cycles. These contacts have always been significant for me. The people in these organizations, and those I’ve met through them, have populated my life with friends, teachers, mentors, and peers.

John Michael Greer writes about developments of the 1970’s that hung fire. The way these currents are being renewed by those responding to the precarious state of our times. I felt, and lived through, those glimmers of finding a new way, putting flesh on the desire to leave behind business-as-usual, and then, went through the national – and personal – derailment of those impulses as the 1980’s took off in a jag of ever more all-consuming greed and denial. Through it all these two institutions coped better than most. They worked to maintain contact with those desires, impulses, ideals. Together they provided venues for those of us who looked back with regret and forward with foreboding, places to gather, and news of each others continuing efforts.

Today the difficult times many of us feared have arrived. That first shock at witnessing the fragility of so much that seemed it would go on for ever, though we knew it was brittle and unsustainable, has passed. The sense of surprise at each new development has worn off too. The details and the time frame of their unraveling are unknown and unknowable, but their effects, their overall trends, are harder and harder to ignore.

I’ve written about Queequeg’s Coffin, the idea of unintended lifesavers. These two places; one a passing event put on by a gathering place of the mind; the other a very-much-real, physical place, the repository of our most significant maritime artifacts, and a place where the skills of their construction and maintenance have been kept alive; have always struck me as prime examples. While each might say their mission is more tied to fitting their treasures of thought and artifact into the modern world, I think their greatest worth might be the legacy they leave us as that world crumbles.

Returning to Mystic that first morning of the show filled me with memories of all my past visits, my previous contacts with the people I expected to find there, with the arc of close to forty years of interaction this moment represented. I felt a subtle difference from the past few years. What had been a dislocating shock as the “boating market” shrank away now looks more like a surge of resilience among many of the people involved.

This world of traditional boats has had a curious and strange relationship with wealth. Most of the boats in this world have been built for and are owned by the wealthy. Yet most of the people involved in their making have chosen a life that precludes the attainment of wealth for themselves. Some have escaped a life in that world and funded their passage with scraps of what they left behind. Others just chose, more likely, they kept leaning towards it until they fell into a way of life that gave them more satisfaction than money. Wealth has been a means towards their own ends, not an end in itself. As the circles of wealth tighten these people have found ways to adjust. Their way of life over all these years has primed them for times like these like few others.

None of this is a program, or even for most, a condition they would describe as the result of some conscious decision. These people make up a Bohemia, one of the last in the true sense of the term as a refuge and cradle for discovering ways of life outside the standard expectations of their day, now that other Bohemias are mere paths to fantasies of stardom and fame. They’ve long been self-conscious of having made what a hedge fund manager might call “bad choices.” They have bristled inwardly at charges that they’ve chosen an “impractical,” even silly life when they could have gotten on with things. Many do feel a sense of the rightness of their choices as they get up each day and have experiences outside what’s available to most people. They continue to see envy in the eyes of many of the same people who have looked down on them as deluded. They live lives others spend fortunes trying to buy their way into. But to say there is a conscious, verbalized consensus amongst them concerning any of this is, I think, taking it too far. This is a mood, an undercurrent, but one that’s there to see if you know where to look.

I’m not going to report on what was at the show. That’s covered elsewhere. Here’s a great place to start. The reason I’ve begun this forum was as a place to discuss aspects of our relation to boats in this particular time that aren’t covered elsewhere.

At Mystic, the schooner Brilliant is a lasting reminder of what a boatbuilding culture can accomplish in difficult times. Built in 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, Brilliant is one of the finest vessels in existence, far surpassing most of what’s been built in the last thirty years, and she will probably outlast them as well! The same collaboration between an owner with real standards – not just a penchant for demanding an empty “excellence!” – along with some of the best practitioners in their fields, restored Nathanael Herreshoff’s New York 50, Spartan of 1913 featured at the WoodenBoat Show last year.

Without the orbital pulls exerted by WoodenBoat and Mystic Seaport this project could never have happened. Money would have been spent, but lessons about quality and the fortuitous diversion of resources from a failing juggernaut towards enabling the subsistence of these varied and talented practitioners would not have come to be.

There’s no telling what will happen to these two institutions in the coming years. They’ve both felt the contraction of the economy, the growing scarcity of materials, and of interest in what they have to offer. Like any of us they may fail to find a way forward. Visiting the show in June, meeting with many who make up this world – old and young – I see they have a strong legacy that will go forward. They have been, and continue to provide, points of focus for the gathering and sustenance of some of the most resourceful and clear-eyed people out there. Whatever the future brings we will be better prepared because of their efforts, and the work that goes on within their embrace.






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