WOODEN BOATS OF MARTHA’S VINEYARD: The Photography of Louisa Gould. Text and photographs by Louisa Gould. Flat Hammock Press, 2008. 64 pages. $19.95, softcover.
If your interest is sailing and wooden boats, you couldn’t hope to have a better perch on your subject than did photographer Louisa Gould until last April. The cognoscenti claim that Vineyard Haven possesses one of the three densest and most varied collections of wooden sailboats on either coast — the other two are said to be Camden, Maine and Port Townsend, Wash. — and Ms. Gould’s gallery, now located on Main street, stood at the harbor end of Beach street extension. To one side stands the Black Dog Tall Ships Co., from which the schooners Shenandoah and Alabama sail, and to the other side toils the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, which has built and restored scores of practical and beautiful sailing vessels going back nearly 30 years.
So Ms. Gould knows the harbor, and she knows the sailing craft it shelters as closely as you can without actually owning them all. She’s also a lifelong sailor who crewed aboard the B boat (in effect the pace boat) for the America True syndicate, which reached the semi-finals in the 1999-2000 America’s Cup campaign in New Zealand. And from the evidence you’ll find in Wooden Boats of Martha’s Vineyard: the Photography of Louisa Gould, she’s also a fine photographer with an intuitive sense of how to show off many different types of sailing craft to their very best advantage.
There are dozens of books like this one in the marketplace, many of them taking up a theme — interiors and brightwork come to mind — but none I know of that feature Vineyard vessels so specifically, spiritedly and intimately. If you were to pare down the story of why the Island harbors (Vineyard Haven in particular) can boast of so many lovely, useful and disparate wooden sailboats, it’s because Capt. Robert S. Douglas built the topsail schooner Shenandoah for the cruising trade in 1964, chose Vineyard Haven as her home port, and introduced scores of crewmen over two generations to the pleasures of Island living and wooden boat sailing; they stayed and bought wooden boats of their own, and Ross Gannon and Nathaniel Benjamin set up their boatyard to maintain them and add new wooden vessels to the fleet. So Ms. Gould’s book is also an important photographic record of what this history has so uniquely bequeathed to us as Islanders at the start of the 21st century.
Regarding the images themselves: To my eye, the strongest are those that show off the sturdy, handsome lines of the Gannon and Benjamin designs. Through Ms. Gould’s lens, for instance, the whole point of wooden boat construction comes through in a series of shots of the Bella class of small sloop, its decks uncluttered, all the rigging lines running and lying where they make simple sense, the hulls beamy for balance, the rails slender and svelte in the G& B manner, the transoms broad and shapely. Look at those photographs and you can hear how the hull moves through the water and how the rigging braces itself in a good breeze. Study any one of these pictures for just a few moments, and you’ll recognize on sight just about all the Nat Benjamin designs that follow in the book.
Ms. Gould travels elsewhere to pick up some of the prettiest vessels under sail in our waters — there’s a fine series on Magic Carpet, the yawl that takes patrons on two-hour sails out of Edgartown. And I’ll linger over any book that makes a study of the Herreshoff 12 1/2, the small training and racing sloop built for young lads by Nathanael Herreshoff, the Wizard of Bristol, starting in 1914 (technically, the 12 1/2s Ms. Gould photographs here are mostly fiberglass replicas, but they’re reimagined and built faithfully enough to let that problem go). In the end, though, it’s clear where Ms. Gould’s gallery was originally situated and how closely she’s been paying attention to what sails every day in one of the greatest ports of refuge for wooden boats on the North American continent. Her book is a creative record how those boats look and sail, and that’s an admirable achievement.
Louisa Gould hosts a book signing and launch party for Wooden Boats of Martha’s Vineyard on Saturday, July 5, free from 5 to 7 p.m. at her gallery at 54 Main street in Vineyard Haven.