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Wooden Boats

Michael Ruhlman

Wooden Boats

Author:Michael Ruhlman
Publisher:Viking Press

By Andrew Reiner | Posted 8/1/2001

I wanted to love Wooden Boats. After all, its pages are heavy and ragged, just like the century-old tools that main characters Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon use to build their plank-on-frame boats. I wanted to love a book about boat builders on Martha's Vineyard who forswear the artifices of modern life and build boats the way their predecessors did when whale oil lit that island's homes. As someone who appreciates all things moldy, this book should have been a godsend. But I didn't love Wooden Boats.

It's not that the story isn't compelling. Benjamin and Gannon are the premier designer/builders of wooden boats and, at the book's opening, they are building a 60-footer, the Rebecca, a project larger in size and scope than any undertaken for a private owner anywhere in the world. But unfortunately for the boat builders, for author Ruhlman, and for the reader, Dan Adams, the wealthy indie filmmaker who commissions the boat, fails to come through on financing and construction on the Rebecca grinds to a halt. So does the story.

Ruhlman tries to rally. He spends the latter half of the book observing the construction of a Nova Scotia-style lobster boat for folk singer Jonathan Edwards. But the new boat is half the length of the Rebecca and her story only half as interesting because, as a client, Edwards isn't the enigma that Adams is.

Ruhlman attempts to inject some tension into the story by bringing up past dramas, such as the 1989 fire that destroyed Benjamin and Gannon's boat shop, but the decade-old anecdote fails to engage. The author also piles on unnecessary details, tossing around arcane terms such as "bilge stringers," and boring the casual reader by cataloging every step in the building process. (For any reader who's not up on his or her carpentry, there's little drama in the straightforward tale of building Edwards' boat.) What little momentum exists in these passages is lost amid pointless, banal dialogue that does little to advance any narrative thread.

Ruhlman's chief mistake is his decision to write about the drama of the boats' building--had he spent more time exploring the stories of the people behind the boats, Wooden Boats might be a better read. Benjamin's personal story alone could justify a book. Historian/author David McCullough, who commissioned a boat from Benjamin and Gannon, said of the enigmatic duo, "[T]hey have an inner ballast that comes from their work. . . . [S]uch people are rare in our time." Ruhlman would have been wise to focus on the boat builders, including the hired hands. Anyone who commits his life to creating things of beauty and strength that last, especially in this age of disposability, and who prizes quantity over quality is worth reading about.

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