At the head of Vineyard Haven harbor, in a ramshackle building crushed between slick yacht marinas and the Island’s biggest commercial docks, Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway is still building wooden boats. Recently the final plank went into the hull of Nat Benjamin’s 100th original design. Andrew Chapman and Lyle Zell, boatbuilders in their 30s, were responsible for the job of planking it up.

Plank on frame wooden boats demand a large skill set from their builders. One hundred years ago, around any harbor on any island poking up from the Atlantic, there were people who could cut out a plank, bend in a new frame or run a fresh bead of cotton into a leaky seam.

Islands have changed. Planning weddings, irrigating lawns and managing rental properties is better for peoples’ pocketbooks and guards them from the hazards of breathing hardwood dust and demanding physical labor. Still, communities that grow in the corner of a harbor, where every long board has to be wrestled from a mill to a shed to a truck, then through a thickness planer before it can be cut out and shaped and screwed to a boat, are strong and resilient.

Gannon & Benjamin's workshop sits at the head of the Vineyard Haven harbor. — Ray Ewing

A lot of talented boat builders have worked in Vineyard Haven since Ross Gannon started hauling and repairing boats on the beach there in the late ‘70s. Andy and Lyle have been working together for six years. Lyle has lived and worked at Gannon & Benjamin since he was old enough to follow his father Ross Gannon around. Andy has worked in a range of boatyards in the U.S., Britain and Canada. The hull of the sloop they finished last week is the seventh major project they’ve tackled together.

When I asked Ross what was special about their partnership, he answered right away: “Their friendship.”

When every piece of every boat has to be teased from a unique chunk of wood and while the work must be accomplished under tight constraints of space and time, challenges are certain and constantly evolving.

“You separate them and they get anxious,” Ross joked about Lyle and Andy.

“They are slightly competitive,” co-worker Zoli Clarke added. “Not in a bad way. They each want to do every job better and faster. Both of them are always trying to improve their craft. They push each other.”

Nat and Ross’s partner Brad Abbott is currently responsible for most of the management of the classic busy boatyard. “Andy and Lyle play a large role,” Brad said.

When I asked him what impressed him about the way Andy and Lyle work he told me, “It means a lot to me to see a younger generation of sailors so deeply committed to wooden boats and sailing.”

A work in progress. — Harry Ricciardi

The boat they are working on this winter is a spec project, and it is for sale. The hull and rig of the 26-foot gaff-rigged sloop are unique, not revolutionary. Nat’s design combines characteristics of favorite boats that have been tacking across Island waters and beyond for hundreds of years.

Unique boats create unique sailing experiences.

“I’m always curious,” Lyle said. “When building a new boat, you never get to get far enough away from it to see what it looks like. You can’t judge its responsiveness until you take it for a sail.”

The current design will have an electric inboard motor. Batteries and solar panels have evolved to the point where they meet the standards of sailors who wouldn’t touch equipment that somebody couldn’t rely on.

Andy owns an old wooden boat, called Maybe Baby, of a very similar size and shape to the one they’re building.

“I’m curious to see how she matches up against the Baby,” he said.

Andy puts his sails up and dips in and out of the mooring field regularly on summer evenings after work. His boat has no auxiliary power. It is something Nat Benjamin noted as we talked about the shop and its future.

“There’s been a change in sensibilities,” Nat said. “There’s more emphasis on push-button sailing. There’s more emphasis on technology. It’s really a discouraging trend.”

Community gathers at Gannon & Benjamin. — Ray Ewing

On Wednesdays, in the middle of summer, when marinas on either side of the shop are crowded with yachts, whose passengers are isolated in air conditioning behind tinted windows, the people who work in and around the harbor gather whatever floating dinghies they can find for an informal race, called the Hump Cup.

“Hump Cup, beer Friday, it’s totally Andy and Lyle,” Ross said, emphasizing how strongly they anchor the waterfront community.

“They get the sailing scene,” Nat added. “And they’re nice people.”

Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway is hosting an open house and tour on Saturday, March 11 at 9:30 a.m. It is located at 30A Beach Road, Vineyard Haven.