The Tao of Boatbuilding
Credit: Wooden Boat School

I am standing in a barn-size brick outbuilding with 12 men, all of us swatting deerflies and listening raptly as a bearded guy explains the Amazing Dance of the Nails. The bearded guy hops onto a plywood slab supported by sawhorses and on which someone has penciled a mystical confusion of curved lines. With rune-stone solemnity, he places 10 equidistantly spaced nails on their sides and lays a board over them. Then he puts one L.L. Bean–booted foot atop the board and begins to rhythmically stomp.

Though we're in a woodsy middle-of-nowhere place, though we're all – save me – male, the Amazing Dance of the Nails isn't the carpenter's equivalent of a Robert Bly drumming circle. Everyone's keeping their Carhartt shorts on; nobody, at least not yet, is primal screaming. These men, many of them hailing from the sea-poor Midwest, are here in Brooklin, Maine, to follow an arguably more mythopoetically manly pursuit: learning to build wooden boats.

This urge, apparently, is a semi-universal one among Y-chromosomal individuals of a certain age. Essayist Witold Rybczynski claims that "at a certain moment in my life (I was thirty-two), I was struck with what seemed an irresistible urge to become a sailor – or more accurately, to acquire a boat…. My dream had another component, also shared by many of the thalassic fraternity (for this is predominantly a male fantasy) – not simply owning but building a boat."

I had to look up thalassic. Turns out it means "of or relating to seas or oceans, especially smaller or inland seas." By that definition, I'm thalassic. I grew up in Maine: spent my summers sailing on my family's Sparkman & Stephens–designed Knutson 33. Despite that upbringing, I've yet to experience the driving need to build a boat. Which is why, for many summers now, I've quizzically observed the influx of strangers – men nearly to the man – who come to my little Maine town for one- and two-week intervals beginning in June to spend their precious vacation days at Brooklin's WoodenBoat School. A lawyer named Ward, who traveled all the way from Southern California to build a wooden boat, drolly sums up the scene as follows: "It's a group of men coming thousands of miles and spending thousands of dollars and dedicating weeks of their time to learn a skill that's been obsolete for 70 years."

Rybczynski can explain this hankering, too. "Every boat dream has some suggestion of escape – in my case, escape from responsibilities, from the security of a university career, from the perils of everyday life."

But what this explanation fails to take into account is that aspect of the thalassic fantasy inspired not by the boat, but by the builder. If you happen to live in Brooklin – a remote coastal village deemed, at least by the sign that greets those crossing the frost-heaved threshold, the boatbuilding capital of the world – you'll find yourself frequently surrounded by interestingly bearded men (ages 21 to 60) wearing wool sweaters and thermal shirts, everything louchely tattered, stained, and sawdusted, even the interesting beards. You can see these professional boatbuilders grabbing coffee at the general store during their 9 a.m. break, exuding a boyish élan no matter their age. Most impressive is their apparent failure to be impressed by themselves. These guys have accepted the boatbuilder's code of humility – they're honor-bound, when queried about their skills, to speak in coolly understated terms. "I build toys for rich people" is how I've heard many a boatbuilder describe his work. If I were a man, I'd want to be, even if it were only for two weeks, one of these men.