With cannons firing from three wharves around the harbor, a Navy warbird lacing the sky overhead with trails of white smoke and a piper sending her down to the sea to the tune of Scotland the Brave, the schooner Rebecca was launched from the Tisbury Marine Railway Company late Tuesday afternoon.
More than 400 people filled the yard, sat on concrete bulwarks or stood on a neighboring pier to witness the launching of the largest vessel of sail or power to be built on Martha's Vineyard in 141 years. It was a day of blue skies, warm sun and a cool southwest breeze that ruffled the dress flags and ensigns strung along the length of a schooner measuring 60 feet on deck and displacing 76,224 pounds - the 20th vessel to be built of wood by Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon since they began building boats at the head of Vineyard Haven harbor in the spring of 1980.
For the present, she is not only the masterpiece of the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, but also a vessel of note to anyone around the world who believes in the durability of plank-on-frame construction and understands the pleasures that sailing a traditionally built wooden vessel can offer.
"I think that this whole exercise - the building of this vessel, the interest in this vessel - is a reflection of what is best about this community," said Matthew Stackpole, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, in the moments before Rebecca was sent down the ways. "As a community, we continue to grow by the people who come here and the people who share our values and the things that are important to us. And this vessel - the fact that she's been built, the fact that you're all here - is a ringing endorsement of the vital growth of our community, and the fact that the things we care about still attract people."
As Rebecca stood over the crowd, visitors could see how her lines, drawn by Mr. Benjamin, evoked yacht design of the 1930s - particularly the vessels of Nathanael Herreshoff, John G. Alden and Olin Stephens. By the standards of today, the schooner looked old-fashioned, full and solid, her stem rounded, her beam wide, her keel of timbers and lead both heavy and long. But those who examined her closely saw ingenuity in those lines. Her sheer was high enough to keep green water off her deck, but low enough to keep the hull from fighting the wind. Her overhangs at the bow and stern were full enough to keep her balanced fore and aft, but not so long as to get slapped around by the sea. Her forekeel ran aft sharply enough to let her bow move easily through a tack.
"She looks magnificent," said James Lobdell of Vineyard Haven, who with his wife, Ginny, owns the Alden schooner Malabar II, built in 1922. "I bet she goes, too."
Rebecca was moved to the railway from her shed behind the Tisbury Marketplace on May 3, backing down Beach Road with more history behind her on land than many vessels acquire in a lifetime on the water. She was commissioned by Daniel Adams of Oak Bluffs, and work began on her in January of 1998. But construction stopped twice - for most of 1999 and much of 2000 - as Mr. Adams struggled to finance the project. In April, both Mr. Adams and the company he created to build the schooner filed for bankruptcy protection.
Into the life of the unfinished schooner came Brian and Pamela Malcolm of Peebleshire, Scotland, who were having Josephine of Wight, a 45-foot centerboard sloop designed by Philip Rhodes, rebuilt by the Gannon and Benjamin yard. Last spring Mr. Gannon and Mr. Benjamin took the Malcolms to see Rebecca, which was then up for sale by the bankruptcy trustee. The couple fell in love with the schooner and in October purchased her for $700,000. Work resumed in late November and moved swiftly after that.
It was an odyssey that lasted three and a half years and employed more than 30 people at one time or another. In the crowd stood some of the boatbuilders who had worked on Rebecca longest - Todd McGee and Casson Kennedy - and others who saw her through closer to the finish: Robert Bennett, Laura Davies and Forrest Williams.
Also on hand was Brad Ives of Oak Bluffs, who found and milled the tropical hardwoods of angelique and silver balli that went into much of Rebecca's hull and deck. The wood for these timbers and planks was found in the rainforests of Suriname, on the northeast shoulder of South America, and was individually chosen by size and shape to go into the keel, frames and trim of the schooner. Gannon and Benjamin was the first boatyard to use this kind of wood to build and repair hulls, starting with Liberty, a 40-foot gaff-rigged sloop, built in 1986. Mr. Ives has since found wood for other traditional boatyards in New England, and for famous vessels, such as the barkentine Gazela of Philadelphia and schooner Amistad of the Mystic Seaport Museum.
Mr. Benjamin paid tribute to the Malcolms at the ceremony, and thanked the crew who had labored on this vessel and others built by the yard - "an exceptional collection of unusual vagabonds and renegades who, through no fault of their own, happened to come to work for us, or work with us, I should say. And the work they do and the company they keep is just wonderful. They're great people. They have great humor, great spirit and they put so much into the boats. I know Ross and I are just extremely grateful for all of them and for their great work."
With this, Rebecca now stood waiting on steel rails and earthen ground that has been devoted to shipbuilding since the establishment in 1840 of what would become known as the Holmes Hole Marine Railway and eventually Martha's Vineyard Shipyard. At least 10 schooners were built on this site. A brig, the Island Queen, was the largest ship turned out by the yard. Launched in 1860, she was 106 feet long and displaced 279 tons. Rebecca is regarded as the largest vessel to have been built on the Island since then.
After a blessing offered by the Rev. Woody Bowman, Pamela Malcolm stepped onto a platform forward of the bow, called out, "I name this beautiful ship Rebecca. May God bless her, and all who sail in her!" At 4:10 p.m. she swung a bottle of champagne hanging from a red ribbon and line toward the stem, and it crashed into the bobstay fitting. Whistles wailed across the yard, a cheer ran from Beach Road out to the end of the Martha's Vineyard Shipyard pier, and youngsters snapped poppers, which went off like crackling rounds of gunfire.
The cars on which the schooner rested were pulled forward, chocks were removed from behind the wheels, and Rebecca lumbered down to the water's edge as Tony Peak of Tisbury played Scotland the Brave on the bagpipes. Because Rebecca will be registered in Britain, the American flag flew from the top of a temporary mainmast in the center of the hull, the Union Jack was laced to a foremast, and the blue and white St. Andrew's Cross flew as her ensign from the stern. A 1948 Navy L-17 Navion piloted by Dick Sherman of the sightseeing company Warbird Flight sped over the hull from the north, trailing white smoke, which swept off to the east in the breeze.
As she touched the water at 4:25 p.m., cannon fire ricocheted across the harbor. From the end of the Martha's Vineyard Shipyard pier to her starboard, Frank Rapoza, who had helped caulk the vessel, fired a cannon built in the Firth of Forth sometime between 1840 and 1850. From his wharf to port, Ralph Packer fired another, modeled on a 12-pounder from 1812 and built by L. Francis Herreshoff. Across the harbor, on the Coastwise Packet Company wharf, Dominic Zachorne of Wickford, R.I., who will rig Rebecca, fired two more belonging to Robert S. Douglas, master of the topsail schooner Shenandoah.
Surrounded by water, Rebecca sat unnaturally elevated in the ebbing tide for a few moments until the hydraulic lifts supporting her stern dropped suddenly, thumping her stern into the harbor. The ferry Nantucket, inbound to Vineyard Haven under the command of Capt. James Hocking, fired long blasts of her whistle, and from her stern two arcs of water jetted into the sunlight. Patrol II, a Gannon and Benjamin workboat, and Blues, a powerboat belonging to Denys Wortman of Vineyard Haven, stood by with three or four kayaks and skiffs to receive Rebecca as she drifted slowly off the cradle, her bow a bit high because she lacked the weight she will eventually carry in rigging, fresh water, anchors and chain. The waterfront resounded with whistles, applause and cheers. At this hour, the whole of Vineyard Haven harbor belonged to her.
Having stood at an odd angle for a few crucial moments during the launch, Rebecca's engine balked when nudged into gear, and so Patrol II came alongside her starboard quarter. With her boatbuilding crew, her designer, his partner and her owners standing beneath her dress flags, Rebecca set off under tow for the Coastwise wharf, across a harbor blazing in the reflected sunlight of late afternoon.
There she received more than 150 guests, who removed their sandy shoes and toured her interior space. Below, she was golden with new varnish, from forecastle through the saloon and masters' stateroom to the after cabin. Her bunks were covered in the blue-green tartan of the Malcolm clan, and flowers stood on table tops. Ashore, another 150 people ate shish kebabs and hamburgers offered by the Black Dog Restaurant as a trio of Kerry Elkin, Laurel Martin and Mark Simos played Irish traditional music on two fiddles and a guitar on the front porch of the Coastwise offices.
The sun began to set, and Rebecca nodded gently at her wharf, not yet three hours acquainted with her new home port. But the water defined her in an entirely new way, and something built into her - dormant through the years in which she gradually rose upward, outward and down the length of her shed - seemed to have been sparked into life.
On the beach near his yard, Mr. Benjamin looked at the schooner and said: "She has a good soul. Every boat has its own destiny, and all during the problems with the bankruptcy and whatnot, we knew that this boat would find its right owner and go on, and it has. Any good wooden boat has a soul and a heart, and this one's beating right along right now."