When Nat and Pam Benjamin and their two-year-old daughter Jessica sailed into Vineyard Haven Harbor in 1972, Nat wondered aloud to his family, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a boatyard to fix up some of the wrecks around here and maybe build some new boats?”

It was not until 1978 that they found such a place, but the owner, Peter Strock, had just signed a purchase and sale agreement with MacDonalds. When a groundswell of opposition put an end to the Mac Attack, the land was sold to Donald DeSorcy who rented it to Nat and Ross Gannon for a year.

“And here we are,” Nat told the sold-out audience at last week’s first-of-the-season Sail Martha’s Vineyard speakers series held at the Black Dog Tavern. “Still renting, year-by-year.”

nat benjamin BW
Nat Benjamin: captain, master wooden boat builder. — Sam Low

From keel to floor timbers to stem and counter, Nat took the rapt audience through building Juno, beginning with drawing the plans in January 2001 to launching in September 2003. The actual construction process starts with lofting the boat’s lines full scale on the floor. “If you read all the books it seems like getting the shape right is a pretty arcane process,” he said, “but as you see here (in a picture of lofting the frames) it only takes a man and a dog about two weeks to lay out the lines.”

A dog and a very humble man, you might say, especially when you’re talking about creating one of the most complex curved objects in the world to make it both pleasing to the eye and able to withstand hurricanes at sea.

We saw the frames, each piece pinned with locust trunnels, as it was being shaped on a ship’s saw capable of creating a rolling bevel that must change constantly to make things fit right.

juno sailboat
Juno, at sea. — Sam Low

We learned about the “Egyptian technique” (rollers, wedges and levers) that allowed the 30,000-pound lead keel, cast in East Providence and hauled into the shop on a Ralph Packer truck, to be moved into place — just so.

And we marveled as Juno’s skeleton took shape before our eyes — sinuous compound curves braced with hackmatack hanging knees and bronze floor timbers to make her both beautiful and very, very sturdy. “A boat is a piece of furniture you take out on the ocean and throw around,” Nat told us.

But it was not all about building — the Gannon and Benjamin yard has trained some of the best talent in the world.

There’s Casson Kennedy, who came looking for a job and when he discovered there was no money to hire him volunteered to work for free. “We eventually paid him,” says Nat, “and he became one of our most skillful joiners, working on the most delicate finishing touches.”

There was Ashley Butler, who sailed into Vineyard Haven harbor from England aboard a 1902 Cornish cutter at the age of 19, worked for Nat and Ross, and built a 30-foot sloop in his spare time which he sailed — without an engine — to the Caribbean and back to England. Now he has his own yard and is married to the daughter of the owner of Rebecca, a previous Gannon and Benjamin schooner. “It’s a tight family,” Nat said.

Or Frank Rapoza — “a caulker and a talker” — who carries on the arcane art of making a wooden boat watertight by easing strips of oakum between the planks in shipyards all over the world.

There’s also Myles Thurlow who came to work at age 11, was a head shipwright by age 18 and “ruined himself for life.” Myles is now a master rigger and spar builder in West Tisbury. “So I guess it ruined him in a good way,” Nat added. There’s also Andy Lyons, who built boats with Nat and Ross, and is now making violins. And the late Maynard Silva, sign-painter extraordinaire, who “with his free hand and never a stencil” painted Juno’s name on the glistening just-finished stern. “And he was a damn good guitar player too,” Nat said. Pat Cassidy, the foreman for Juno, sat next to Nat during the talk. Pat is now house carpentering but he’s ready to jump back to boat building when the market improves.

“We could have never built this boat without such a wonderful collection of characters,” Nat marveled.

The talk was followed by much discussion.

“How much did Juno cost?” someone asked.

“You price boats by the pound,” Nat responded, “it’s a little like going down the organic aisle at Croning’s — $25 a pound — a bag of almonds.” Juno, it turned out, was a lot of almonds. She weighs 100,000 pounds. You do the math.

And where’s Juno now? She’s down in the Caribbean and will shift her berth back to the Vineyard this summer, still owned and sailed by the family who worked hard with the shipyard to create her.

In conclusion, Nat told us one story that illustrates just how well Juno was built. She voyaged to Europe in 2006 to compete in Les Voiles de St. Tropez Regatta, a series of races that feature some of the most beautiful yachts in the world. One day, while at anchor, Juno was hit amidships by a 100-foot out-of-control steel ketch under full sail. A lesser ship would have given up the ghost then and there, but not Juno. After a few weeks of repair work she was sailing home across the Atlantic.

“That’s why you build a boat strong,“ Nat said.


The next date for the Sail Martha’s Vineyard-Black Dog dinner lecture series is Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. Dan O’Connor from the Life Raft and Survival Equipment Company in Portsmouth, R.I., will discuss safety at sea.