Over the course of four years, tapping both the wood and wisdom of local friends, the author built a beautiful dory called Nona Belle. Photo by Stephan Syz.
I have always loved wooden boats of all kinds, but especially dories, for their elegant simplicity of design, the way they look upon the water, the way they handle in a heavy sea, their rich and rugged history. I had known some in my youth on Cape Cod – tender, unadorned, straight-sided workboats with pine planks hammered together with clenched nails. I had a boyhood self-delusion of becoming a fisherman and so saw a kind of beauty in old, scarred skiffs quite apart from the gleaming hulls of thoroughbreds trimmed in teak and mahogany.
I never became a fisherman, but a lifetime later I awakened my long-dormant dream of building a boat of my own. I enrolled in a Greg Rössel course at the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine, to begin acquiring the necessary skills. There I saw, in an open shed and resting quietly among other boats in various stages of construction, a dory of a different sort. Compared to the working dories I’d known, it had a more refined, even genteel, look – gracefully bellied, the flat bottom narrow and lanceolate. The strake laps were studded with neatly peened copper rivets. The gunwales, thwarts, and tombstone transom were of mahogany, lustrous even awaiting the glow of varnish. I was smitten.
John Gardner, legendary small boat designer, builder, and author, was similarly smitten. He wrote in The Dory Book, “The dories I had rowed and sailed on the upper reaches of Maine’s Passamaquoddy Bay were not the dories I found on the Lynn and Swampscott beaches, along the shores of Marblehead, Salem, and Beverly, and at the Cape Ann towns of Gloucester and Rockport. The round-sided dories . . . were a choicer breed than the straight-sided Bank dories used by fishermen elsewhere on the New England coast. The sweet lines of some of them all but took my breath when I saw them for the first time, out of the water in all their naked elegance. I reveled in their good looks and desired them as much for their beauty as for their use.”
Upon first sight, this specimen Swampscott dory at the school, a cross between workhorse and thoroughbred, was what I wanted. I read books about these dories and their history, looked at photos online, and studied plans. Then, fortuitously, the WoodenBoat School offered a weeklong course – Building a Dory. I signed up immediately.
Our instructor, Robert Elliott, had worked for years in Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, Massachusetts, which has been turning out dories continuously since 1793. In class, he was sharp-eyed but soft-spoken, endlessly patient, deliberate without seeming so. He was also a philosopher – a requisite, it seems, for wooden-boat builders in general. For example, when we were struggling mightily to make a joint fit absolutely perfectly, he stopped us and said, “You know, there are two kinds of ‘perfect.’ One, you see a flawless inlay, and say ‘Perfect.’ Or, you’re in a boat that’s sprung a leak and is sinking and you don’t have a bailer, and someone hands you a battered bucket; ‘Perfect,’ you say, relieved. So you have to decide which ‘perfect’ you want or need.”
As much as possible, Elliott used hand tools – he had made many – and local materials to carry on Yankee traditions of thrift, practicality, and pride of workmanship. As I listened to him and watched him, his philosophy became my own, and I hatched my plan to build a dory. I would use native wood from my home state of Vermont, from trees I harvested and milled myself; I would use hand tools whenever I could; I would make the sail myself, from traditional fabric. These were all things, of course, that New England boatmen used to do by necessity. I would work close to home and close to the bone and demonstrate that a beautiful and seaworthy boat (assuming it would turn out to be both) could be fashioned from wood of our own land, instead of exotic species that came from God-knows-where, with God-knows-what environmental impact.
I preferred to build locally for the same considerations of economy, ecology, community, and pride that would prompt one to buy locally, or eat locally. When I eat game that I have killed myself or eat vegetables from my garden, I have an attachment to the food; it means something beyond that which merely tastes good or fills the stomach. I become aware of my relationship with the land. So, too, building a boat this way would connect me to my home and feed my soul. Elliott understood, of course, gave his blessing, and advised me on which woods to use and which to avoid.
From the boat designs profiled in John Gardner’s Building Classic Small Craft, I chose the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Modified Swampscott Dory for its pleasing lines, the flexibility it offered to adapt it for amateur construction, and its “overall length . . . not so great as to require building space in excess of what is available to most home workshops.” In addition to lines and offsets, Gardner’s book also included scantlings for everything, patterns for planks, and detailed drawings of the stem, transom, centerboard trunk, spars, and sail – all reassuring for someone who had never lofted or built a boat on his own.
I had no suitable timber on my own land and none of the big machinery nor skills to harvest, haul, and process logs into lumber. Just as Robert Elliott had appeared just at the right time, Bill Manning was there when I needed his help.
Bill and I have been close friends for decades, brought together through our work in conservation – he in the private sector, and I in the public. He has lived and worked close to the land and sea most of his life: as a boy on his family tree nursery in Massachusetts, in college by the coast of Wales, and later running outdoor programs at various institutions – even a couple he created himself – overseeing natural resources in Vermont. Bill, as rugged as he is slender, is vision-driven. His hands are always busy at or near the ground while his eyes are always on some project in the distant future. In the guise of a north-country logger, he is an entrepreneur of rustic and rural enterprises. There is a common denominator to all his ventures (some would call them “adventures”): provide the kind of ethics, education, and training that allow people to conserve their land while being able to make a living on it and from it. He, like Robert, lives his philosophy.
Bill and his wife own 700 acres of timberland, from which he harvested and processed all the lumber for his home, barn, outbuildings, and the big central building of his self-started natural-resources education enterprise, the Vermont Leadership Center in East Charleston. Not one to dawdle, he readily offered his trees, equipment, and himself to my service. “What better way,” he said, “to demonstrate what you and I believe in?” He added, with a wry smile I knew well, “We’ll get to spend more time together, too,” meaning, “You can help me later with some projects I have in mind.”
Bill and I went out to get the trees, cutting plenty of extras to make up for unseen defects or mistakes I no doubt would make later in construction. We felled northern white-cedar – as tall, wide, and clear as we could find – for the planking and tamarack for the stem, frames, and stern knee. Tamarack cut green twists impossibly as it dries, so we cut dead ones after we made sure that they were not the home of any cavity-dwelling birds or mammals. Black cherry’s heartwood mimics the color of mahogany and would serve for the gunwales, transom, thwarts, and rudder. Bill had plenty of air-dried and milled cherry in his barn, so what we cut would replace the wood we pulled from his stockpile. We limbed the logs and, with his skidder, dragged them to his portable Wood-Mizer sawmill. Bill taught me how to operate the gas-powered horizontal bandsaw, and after I practiced on several low-quality logs, butchering a few of them, I milled 5/4 planks (inch and a quarter thick) and Bill moved them with his tractor into the drying shed. The cedar would need only six months to dry enough for planing.
Bill’s northern forest property did not have the right species for certain components, so off I went in pursuit of other quarry. I wanted apple crooks for the knees and found them at the home of another old friend, Warren Kitzmiller, in Montpelier. He and his wife had planted a crabapple in their front yard years ago when they moved into their house, and over the years, it had grown large. Decades later, the apple was dying – a sad reminder of the wife he had lost to cancer. With a heavy heart, he cut it down. As he gave me the wood, he said, “It will be a fitting memorial.” At home, I made a jig to hold the crooks and with my chainsaw cut them into slabs – thick pages of a precious memory book, they seemed – and laid them to dry atop the firewood pile in my shed.
Another friend in my town, forester-logger Paul Cate, took an interest in my project. He, too, loved wood and had the hand tools to fashion it. Among his admirable collection of carefully stickered boards of different species was the black locust I sought for oarlock pads, boom jaws, and little blocks for the running gear. It’s a very hard, dense, and rot-resistant wood that finishes to a beautiful, dark, butter-yellow. On his property, Paul also had a grove of straight, medium-sized red spruce trees suitable for the spars; we cut several, thinning his stand in the process. At home, I peeled the bark with a drawknife and set the naked poles under cover to dry.
For the tiller, I wanted to use hophornbeam. It’s a tough and flexible wood used for axe and pump handles, befitting for its other names, ironwood and leverwood. I knew hophornbeam grew on a neighbor’s property where some logging was taking place and asked the logger, Scott Farrar, if he could put a piece aside for me. One morning, there was a plank of it, roughed out by chainsaw, outside our front door.
I cut and carved a pair of oars from rough-cut white ash I bought at a local sawmill. For the centerboard, I found white oak at a local woodworker, and for the centerboard trunk, I salvaged wide white-pine boards from the scrap-pile of another neighbor’s house that was undergoing renovation. I was almost done scrounging for my mongrel collection but had one more item to find. For sentimental reasons, I made an exception to my rule about using only Vermont-grown wood for one piece, the breasthook. It would come from a giant black walnut tree cut down a half-century ago in the backyard of my boyhood home in Illinois. Decades later, a furniture-making friend in Montpelier designed and built a desk of that walnut and gave me the leftover pieces, one of which became the breasthook, a little keystone holding together not just the boat, but my past and present. (I’m glad I didn’t know then that black walnut is considered bad luck in a wooden boat – it’s said to attract lightning.)
Six months passed while my lumber dried. Bill and I loaded the cedar, cherry, and tamarack planks on a flatbed trailer, and I towed the load to the Vermont Outdoor Furniture shop in Barre, a few miles from home. The owner, Bruce Gratz, had been building a magnificent oak-and-cypress catboat in a shed attached to the shop. I had stopped by several times to see his boat in progress, and he had offered to run my planks through his industrial-sized planers when the time came. The time had come, and within a couple of hours, amid the whirr of machinery and the scent of cherry, cedar, and tamarack sawdust, we were done, and off I drove with my precious cargo to the next destination – the shop where I would put all the pieces together.
Lori Barg lives in the hills outside Plainfield, eight miles from my home, in an old Vermont farmhouse she had renovated herself. She’d turned an attached building into a boat shop where I’d worked before, fumbling with a Shellback dinghy kit and making oars using a bandsaw, drawknives, and spokeshaves under her direction. A statuesque, earthy woman, she had worked many professions, sometimes all at once: woodworker, house builder, innovator of small hydroelectric generation, gardener, pick-your-own commercial berry grower, and builder and sailor of boats, canoes, and kayaks.
For the next three years, off and on, Lori and I worked side by side – I building my dory lofted on newsprint paper, she re-canvassing a canoe and building a lightweight sailboat without plans. She once had lived in Bolivia, where she admired boat builders who used only a few hand tools to construct beautiful craft from memory, using techniques passed down through generations. In summer, the big doors of Lori’s shop were open to the scents and sounds and views outside, across broad meadows to distant hills. We listened to music or talk shows on the radio; we mused about our lives and about wooden boats. In winter, we would start the woodstove in the morning and work in coats and hats and sometimes gloves until the room warmed up. Neighborhood dogs would stop by and lie next to the stove, and once in a while, someone would drop in to see what we were doing or just to chat.
My boat slowly took shape – the pile of lumber and odd chunks of wood metamorphosing into recognizable structures, then the structures into a whole. Progress was halting, and mistakes were common: sometimes a day’s work would have to be undone the next, then redone the day after. I found myself often saying, “Thank God for epoxy.” It fixed errors that in earlier times might have meant tossing long-labored-over pieces into the firewood pile. I kept a list of all the mistakes I made, thinking that someday I might turn it into an amusing story. Lori lent a hand to position awkward pieces, looked on with experienced eyes to solve problems, gave a kind or corrective word, and lifted flagging spirits.
Four years after I began, my dory was done, gleaming with its new coats of paint and varnish. On the inside top of the transom I tacked on an oval bronze nameplate etched with the name I had given her, Nona Belle, to honor my wife, Nona née Bell.
The day we launched Nona Belle at a local reservoir was sunny and warm after the rain the day before, and many family members, friends, and onlookers were at the ramp as my wife christened the boat with soda water from a plastic bottle, avoiding broken glass and wasted champagne. I backed the trailer into the water, and Nona Belle glided out to the cheers of the crowd. She rocked gently in her new world, the painter like an umbilicus reaching to the shore. A birth indeed.
As I watched the water-light dappling over her sides, I hardly believed that such a thing had come to pass. She had attained both of Robert Elliott’s kinds of perfection: perfectly beautiful and perfectly functional. But Nona Belle was not mine alone. She belonged to those who had inspired and encouraged me, who had shared time, space, wisdom, and their craft. She came from New England traditions, passed down through the ages. She was of Vermont’s enduring forests – their giving of the raw materials. All were there in Nona Belle, floating on the water, waiting for me.
Charles W. Johnson of East Montpelier is the former Vermont state naturalist and the author of several books. This story was adapted from the article “Close to Home: A fine dory built of locally grown wood,” originally published in Small Boats Monthly, August 2015.