The craft of building, restoring and loving wooden boats was celebrated Thursday, Nov. 10, at the Vineyard debut of the movie Wood Sails Dreams screened at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society in Vineyard Haven. The one-hour documentary is a New England coastal story and it is a Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket story.
The film was directed and written by Nantucket resident John Stanton and honored an industry that might have disappeared 40 years ago were it not for a group of passionate wooden boat enthusiasts. There was a time when some boaters worried that fiberglass boats would replace all wooden boats.
The movie begins with footage honoring the Opera House Cup, a wooden sailboat race which this past August celebrated its 41st year. The race began in 1973 and has grown over the years. This past summer there were nearly 50 entrants. The movie pays tribute to the Opera Cup principal supporters Gwen Gaillard, owner of the Opera House Restaurant, and others, including all the sailors who bring their wooden boats of all sizes to compete in the daylong race in Nantucket Sound. There is plenty of dramatic footage of these wooden sailboats speeding across Nantucket Sound. Each vessel under sail resembles the magnificence of a bird in flight, but also displays a detailed and polished fragility.
The story spends some time at the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven, where Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon talk about the building of wooden boats and why their work matters. The narrator of the film, Jon Wilson, founder of WoodenBoat Magazine, offers high praise for the Vineyard boat yard and others for making wooden boat building not only a viable industry but one that is regaled for its precision and artisanship.
Mr. Stanton’s movie takes the viewer from Nantucket to Newport and Bristol, R.I. and north to Maine, interviewing wooden boat builders and owners.
After the showing of the film, Mr. Stanton told the Gazette how the project began as an idea for a 15-minute film centered around the Nantucket Community Sailing, an organization similar to Sail Martha’s Vineyard. Initially, it began with a conversation about the Opera House Cup and the wooden boat sailors of the 1970s.
“Then we met with Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin and I saw a better story,” Mr. Stanton said.
After a meeting in Newport, R.I., Mr. Stanton began to understand the potential scope of the narrative. “In speaking with people, it dawned on me, this little world of wooden boats is what the story had to be.”
The film took four years to make, amidst many other film projects and involved more than 150 hours of recording time, including interviews and dramatic footage. Cinematographer Dan Driscoll and camera operator Tom McGlinn, along with others, helped make the movie a visual showcase.
At the screening on Thursday night, Mr. Stanton stood on stage after the film and accepted accolades from the audience, but he qualified himself by saying he is much more a filmmaker than an authority on sailing. He has been making movies for 20 years. His first big film was called Leather Soul, a story of leather working in his hometown of Peabody. At the turn of the century, the city earned the title “Leather Capital of the World” but over the years the industry there declined. That film was narrated by Studs Terkel.
After four years of working on this film, Mr. Stanton told the Gazette he could easily relate to boat builders and the way they learn their craft through apprenticeship. “I learned how to make films in New York city,” he said, by following the steps of experts.
Wooden boat building has a great future, Mr. Stanton said. “This is a very deep and beautiful lifestyle. They live and are dedicated to owning a wooden boat, or admiring or to building wooden boats. This puts them in touch with a world that has permanence to it. There is a sense of history. This is significant, for today we live in a throw-away digital world.”
Wood Sails Dreams was first shown on June 29 at the 18th annual Nantucket Summer Film Festival. In August it was shown at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and it continues to be shown in theatres.
But Thursday night was an especially significant showing for the director.
“What a great audience to share this film,” he said. “They got it. To me, this is the most fun I’ve had. We’ve brought this film to a number of audiences, but this was the most fun.”