Amid the piles of sawdust and wood shavings, beyond the planks of white pine, black locust and silver bali, heritage and history are rising from the ground once again in Vineyard Haven.
At the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, Manny Palomo chisels and planes the keel of September, a 26-foot sloop. Mr. Palomo crawls around the ribbands and hull molds of the ship's skeleton, fine tuning the frame for the garboard and rest of the planking.
Several feet behind him, Marty Harris fits an instrument panel into the console of the 29-foot power boat Ilona. With the cabin finished and the 250-horsepower diesel engine installed, the Ilona is nearing completion, soon to have the distinction of being only the second power boat built in the shipyard's 25-year history.
Just a few steps from Gannon and Benjamin, in a work space owned by Robert Douglas, Sidney Morris and scores of young volunteers are hard at work building a very different kind of wooden boat. Mr. Morris and his crew are several months from finishing two 32-foot gigs - long, slender row boats - modeled after British crafts that earned fame in the 19th century by smuggling contraband across the English Channel. These two boats face a less notorious future, instead serving as the flagships for a new Island rowing program Mr. Morris hopes to start this summer.
And across Beach Road at Mugwump, Gannon and Benjamin's schooner shed, the soon-to-be 38-foot sloop Here And Now has been lofted (a term for re-rendering the plans in full scale on the floor where the vessel will be built) and is in the early stages of production. The keel timber has been brought inside, the molds have been cut and the transom is done. In the coming weeks, the boat's frame will slowly come together, and a hull will emerge.
In Vineyard Haven, wooden boat building - an industry that ranks alongside whaling in Island tradition - is thriving. Currently, within a half-mile radius, five traditional boats are under construction with three more waiting in the wings.
And that's not including Mr. Benjamin's own boat which he is slowly finishing in the Mugwump shed.
"There are more wooden boats being built than ever, and not just here on the Vineyard," Mr. Gannon says, running his hand along the curve of September's hull. "There certainly has been a resurgence in handmade, traditionally built wooden boats, but we have been fortunate, too. We've made a life out of this."
On the Vineyard, this marks something of a reversal in economic trends in recent years, where business growth in the tourist industry has flattened noticeably. In the last five years, Mr. Gannon says he and his partner Nathaniel Benjamin have seen a steady number of new construction starts for plank on frame boats, the only kind that Gannon and Benjamin build. The reason?
"People recognize their beauty," Mr. Gannon says, a smile peering out from behind his gray beard. "They're the prettiest."
Another could be the increased popularity of this particular yard. In 2001, Wooden Boats by Michael Ruhlman was published, a book chronicling Gannon and Benjamin and the building of the 60-foot schooner Rebecca. That was followed by countless newspaper and magazine articles, and renewed public interest in the craft. Two years later in 2003, Gannon and Benjamin launched Juno, a 65-foot cruising schooner.
"They have established themselves as the leaders in their field, and the Island, particularly the youth that lives here, is very fortunate to be able to use them as a resource," Mr. Morris says. "They are master craftsmen, and they are also master mentors."
Mr. Morris, a teacher at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, is the head of Vineyard Voyagers, an Island nonprofit organization committed to giving Island youth the opportunity to build and sail wooden boats. He says recent exposure to the industry has sparked a crop of younger minds consumed with the sea.
"Every year now we are getting those one or two kids that are really into it," he says. "We are getting the ones who are really attracted to the ocean and are now learning to embrace that whole heritage through boat building."
One of the crop is Myles Thurlow, who at 19 years old built Mabel, a 28-foot, open Noman's Land boat that Mr. Morris, along with Malcolm Boyd and seven students from the charter school, sailed to the Hudson River. Mr. Thurlow was an apprentice at Gannon and Benjamin, where he had worked since age 12.
In turn, Mr. Thurlow's protegé, Robert Blood, has worked on wooden boats and is currently enrolled at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
In that tradition, Mr. Morris, through Vineyard Voyagers, has set out to build two large row boats to teach kids the art of boat building. The boats, 32 feet in length with a five-foot beam, seat six rowers and a coxswain; they are being built on Saturdays by students from both the charter school and the regional high school, with Mr. Gannon providing technical support. They take their design from the open boats that used to race across the English Channel from the Scilly Isles near Cornwall, smuggling goods from France. Mr. Morris hopes to have them completed by summer.
"The new plan is to take some students to Maine," he says.
At Gannon and Benjamin, the vessels under construction may be shorter than Mr. Morris's row boats, but they are more intricate and complex. September, the 26-foot Alerion sloop, takes its design from plans originally drawn in 1912 by Nathanael Herreshoff, one of America's most legendary designers and builders. It is the second Herreshoff design Gannon and Benjamin has built, and its owner plans to keep the boat on the Cape.
Ilona, the powerboat, is relatively new territory for Gannon and Benjamin. Only the second powerboat the shipyard has built, it features a custom-designed engine well that places the motor farther down in the hull to reduce noise.
"It should be much quieter than your average 250-horsepower engine," Mr. Gannon says.
Here And Now, the 38-foot cruising sailboat over at Mugwump commissioned by a German client, is just beginning to take shape. The boat was designed by Mr. Benjamin and should be finished by early fall. After that, Mr. Gannon says they have three smaller crafts to build - an 18-foot open boat based on 19th-century Boston harbor work boats, a 16-foot Whitehall rowing boat and an 11-foot tender.
With all this activity, Mr. Gannon says he is always proud when a Gannon and Benjamin boat sails out of the harbor toward distant shores. But he says it is in the early days, after the lofting is done, when the hull looks more like the skeleton of a whale, that he finds the most satisfaction.
"This is boat building," he says, scanning September's skeleton. "The rest is just carpentry."