SLOOP: Restoring My Family’s Wooden Sailboat, An Adventure in Old-Fashioned Values. By Daniel Robb. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y. 2007. 318 pages with photographs. $25.
In his new book Sloop, Daniel Robb, a writer and carpenter by trade, has mastered two projects. There is the book, of course, but then it is itself a journal about his two-year renovation and restoration of an old family sailboat. For the author it was the merging of two projects. From the first words in the book, the author makes it clear that these projects are, for him, a collaboration.
The reader quickly learns Mr. Robb’s intentions are being shared with a publisher. When the publisher agrees to the book idea, the author writes:
“Heck. Now I was in the soup. I had two fears:
“One: That I wouldn’t have the skill or stamina to rebuild the boat properly —that it would wind up at the back of the garage, gathering dust, after several years of well-intentioned but pointless labor.
“Two: That I wouldn’t be able to write about the old bucket. It was just an old boat.”
It also is obvious from the start of the book that Mr. Robb accomplished both. This is a tale where the outcome is known. But Mr. Robb’s tale is about a journey, a quest, and completion is not climatic. There is no bottle of champagne or a big celebration.
The story began before he was born when the little boat sailed from Woods Hole. The boat was a derelict, out of the water for 10 years, and in need of either a quick final ending or a resurrection. The author made it a part of his beginning.
Mr. Robb, a writer and carpenter by trade, is no stranger to this region. His first Simon & Schuster book, Crossing the Water: Eighteen Months on an Island Working with Troubled Boys — a Teacher’s Memoir, was published in 2002 and is about life at the Penikese School in the Elizabeth Islands.
The restoration of this old wooden boat could have been a Vineyard story. The tale takes place on the Cape and includes Falmouth, Woods Hole and the waters around Buzzards Bay. There are boatbuilders, sawmill operators and plenty of cups of coffee consumed in the construction of this boat. Mr. Robb speaks often of getting into his Saab and driving off to solve another puzzle, find another piece of advice or pick up wood. There are so many aspiring writers who love to work on their boats. And there are wooden boat sailors who aspire to write about the journeys they’ve taken.
Quite a few characters appear in the book. Mr. Robb humbles himself in a world of boat experts. And he shares their stories while telling his own. But the star of the book is a 1939 Herreshoff 12 1/2 foot wooden sloop, old and family owner. The boat design is familiar around here. There are at least three of them in Island waters. Far more common in Vineyard harbors are these same boats with fiberglass hulls. Later this summer, the Edgartown Yacht Club is hosting the nationals for this competing class and more than 50 boats are expected, fiberglass and wood.
The reader doesn’t have to be an expert in boatbuilding to appreciate the power of Mr. Robb’s tale. Boat owners can share in the lore of these boats. There is plenty of maritime history in this story too. Mr. Robb talks about Nathaniel Greene Herreshoff, who designed the boat in 1914, late in his boat designing career.
“Herreshoff was remarkable. I think the first thing that comes to mind is that he sailed small boats when they were used to haul things. The first boats he used were designed for speed, but they were like pickup trucks that are meant to go faster than the other guy’s pickup truck. They were catboats and cutters ... this would have been 1850 or so ... with the mast forward to give space to work, and a broad, deep hull so you could haul something, and they had to be able to survive any kind of weather. They were working craft, so he came out of a very practical side of things, even though he’s known for his racers.”
This writer is a big fan of the book The Big House: A century in the life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt. While these two books are about different structures in the region, they share a familiar theme. The world has changed considerably in this part of Massachusetts. Whether you are a home owner, a boat owner, or an old vintage car owner, Sloop is a great read. It is really about falling in love with the things in our lives that are old, wooden and in need of attention. By taking on these restoration projects, we find out more about ourselves and our community.
Daniel Robb will appear tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Main street in Vineyard Haven to talk about and sign copies of Sloop.