Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How They Walked the Water

September 19, 2012
Essex Shipbuilding Museum
Essex, Massachusetts

Erelong other barks, and brigs, and schooners,
which had in the mean while doubled the Cape,
sailed by her in the smacking breeze,
and our consciences were relieved.
Some of these vessels lagged behind,
while others steadily went ahead.
We narrowly watched their rig and the cut of their jibs,
and how they walked the water,
for there was all the difference between them
that there is between living creatures.

HDT, Cape Cod

There’s a wonderful place to go to learn about wooden ships, and that is the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. This museum is not just rooms full of ship models and artifacts (I love the teeny people in these displays)

but a boatyard full of old boats in various stages of restoration,
and newer boats, currently being built in the age-old method and designs.

How old is age-old, you may ask?
Well … in Essex, people have been crafting boats and launching them into this tidal section of the Essex River since the 1600s.

The museum sits on land that was originally part of the Story Boatyards.

Our guide at the museum was Justin Demitri, who spent hours talking with us. He answered our many, many questions with patience and humor, and his enthusiasm was contagious.

His special area of research is The Dory.

At the other end of the spectrum is this enormous preserved carcass of the Essex-built Evelina Goulart, in her day a swordfishing schooner that travelled the North Atlantic. She now serves as a teaching tool, showing the anatomy of her original construction (including the 6000 or so wooden pegs, or trunnels, holding her 85-foot frame together. )

In the Workshop, you could see fond remembrances of past "design experiments"


As well as work that was currently in progress.

If you visit their website, you can see some of the activities of this museum.
There are hands-on workshops for everyone, from elementary schoolkids to ElderHostel groups. The staff and volunteers at the museum are helping to keep the art and crafts of wooden boatbuilding alive.

Things I had been merely reading about in books were here in real life.
It’s like beginning to learn a new language -- this maritime vocabulary, full of words like rig and jibs and lofting.

Justin merely touched upon the concepts of boat-design, but even in our short time here, one began to appreciate “the differences between them,” as Thoreau so astutely observed.

I sure felt a lot less apprehensive about going out on one of these creatures, knowing how sturdily they are built.

My interest in all this began from the historical angle.
Imagine what Henry Thoreau saw on that breezy day, when looking out from Cape Cod --  A horizon full of sails !
Back then, sailing ships were not merely pleasure-craft.
There were fleets of ships, powered only by the wind, carrying wood, granite, and coal – the tractor-trailers of their day.

These were working boats of all sizes and shapes, for everything from hauling cargo worldwide, to coastal mackerel-fishing, or for transporting passengers on a short hop across the bay.

Of course, things today are vastly different than they were in the heyday of Sail.

Different, but the old ways are not dead.
Essex today is experiencing a renewal of sorts, and it all revolves around these beautiful wooden boats. For in truth, they are creations of an entire community.

Just across the way are the Burnham Boatyards.
For eleven generations, a member of that family has created wooden watercraft here.
(In a few days, we would meet the latest in that line, but that’s another story.)

Rick and I could have spent more time in Essex.
Mom, true to her farmgirl roots, was more impressed with the size of the Rhododendrons at the Audubon nature sanctuary in Ipswich.

And along the way, we had seen this boat for sale - it seems to be some sort of weird hybrid. Notice the name that keeps popping up this week !


  1. Wonderful post. I now have a destination point for our next coastal adventure.