People said it would never work. But people were wrong. Vineyard Haven boat builders Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin have a partnership that has survived 30 years, including a devastating fire that left them with nothing but the will to start over again. Today Gannon and Benjamin is a household name on the Vineyard, synonymous with wooden boats and Island values.
Interviews by Rachel Nava Rohr
I knew who Nat was before I actually got to know him. I got to know him because four of us delivered his boat from Majorca. Before we left, of course, I met Nat and his wife Pam. They had two little girls at the time, who are now grown and have their own kids. That must have been around 1975, I would guess - 1974 maybe. We delivered the boat back here and that was the beginning of getting to know Nat.
I came here right after college in 1970. I took a job in North Carolina then came here on Fourth of July weekend. I quit my job and came back. I knew Nat was making a go of trying to build small boats up at his house and I bought a 36-foot sailboat. When I bought it, I had no idea what the situation was on Martha's Vineyard at the time - none of the boat yards let you do your own work, and this boat needed a lot of work. So I ended up hauling it up onto the beach right between the Black Dog and where the boat yard is now and started to work on it. I went to ask Nat for some advice and Nat said, ‘Well let me come down and look,' and he came down. I think he must have spent most of the next several days with me. I had never steam-bent any frames of any substantial size and didn't even know how to go about doing it. So Nat came down and we must have put 25 frames in the boat over the next few days. At the time we were two hippies trying to make a go of life doing what was enjoyable and what would earn us a living. We started talking about building a boat yard right then, working on my boat on the beach, right there.
It took about a year. That same fall I had taken a job operating a charter boat in the Caribbean, so about November 1, I shut down my project, covered the boat up where it was and took off. Before I left, we canvassed the waterfront, trying to find a location where we could lease the property and build a railway and build a dock and start this business. When I left, we had more or less nailed down the property where we are now.
Nat is the same mind as I am. When someone needs help, you lend a hand. So when I was struggling to rebuild this 36-foot boat, he came down and just gave me three days of his time - or five days, or whatever it was, I don't remember. I said, this guy's alright. It's odd that you would start a business with somebody that you'd only spent three or four days with, but we both had the vision. Nat had been in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean and seen how boat yards could be - a little funky boat yard where you let the owners do their own work, where you only had one or two boats at a time. Theoretically, it shouldn't have worked, what we did. Everybody told us it wouldn't work. We couldn't borrow money from the bank, we had to borrow money from personal friends to do it - friends and family. But it did work, and we're still in business. You know, we're not making a lot of money, but our business employs Nat, me and several other people twelve months of the year - we're supporting several families out of that little business now.
Nat and I get along great. There's very little said. When Nat is firm about something, I don't question it, it's fine. There have been times when I've just said, okay, if you want to do it that way, that's fine. And I watch, skeptical if things will work out the way we want them to work out - and usually they do. And he does the same thing with me. I can make tons of mistakes and he looks the other way. I made a fabulous one this week. It happens. And you could be angry at your partner, but you have to laugh.
Our skills complement each other. We have a skill set that's the same in many ways, but we also have skills that complement the other guy's skills. We're very much on the same page about a lot of stuff. I think we both live a kind of similar lifestyle. Mine's a little rougher than Nat's perhaps, but you don't see Nat driving a new car. We're sensitive about the environment and politically progressive. On a more simple but day-to-day basis, in just how you treat people, Nat and I are very much the same. To stay in business, you can run your business in a really businesslike fashion, like lots of businesses do - it's cut and dried, the bottom line is how much money you made. Our business doesn't operate that way. It's frustrating to the people that work in the office, to have Nat and I give away a lot of our time, give things away, or not charge for this or that, but that's how he and I operate.
I don't know what makes a partnership like ours work so well. It's an acquired trust and respect, I think, that makes it work for Nat and me. We've lived through some hard times, we've lived through some fun times. And I suspect it's kind of like a marriage as it goes along. It just sort of evolves. Now, Nat and I just cruise along effortlessly. It doesn't require much maintenance to keep our relationship going.
We have the same taste when it comes to boats. Nat and I can see a boat sail in and we can pick it apart and both of us see the same things. If you're an art critic for example, it's the same idea. I don't fancy myself an art critic - but sometimes a boat will come in and tie up to our dock and Nat and I will go out and say hello to the people, and then we'll walk back down the dock together and look back and say, ‘Do you see that such-and-such?' ‘Yeah, isn't that awful?' Or ‘Isn't that great?' Or whatever. We'll see the same things, which is pretty cool.
You know that we burned to the ground once. There was no friction between Nat and me, but we had been working really hard. We used to work six days a week, from early in the morning to 6 or 7 at night, trying to just stay in business, and not really being aware that anyone cared or was paying any attention to what we were doing. I mean, the paper had written articles when we launched boats and stuff like that, but not aware that the community had a sense as to what was going on. But for both of us, the experience of the community coming forward and helping us to rebuild - it was really something. I can't really explain it. It was emotional. And rewarding. It surprised me. We were just working, working on what we wanted to do, and all of a sudden, people came out of the woodwork to make sure we got back in business. I mean, we could have closed the doors, but Nat and I had the same thing - that morning, we knew we each had the resolve to start over again. Our tools were gone. Our machinery was gone. We didn't know how, but we would do it over again.
Pam and I came here in 1972. We sailed into this place in an old Norwegian racing boat that we had that we bought for very low dollars in Europe and fixed it up. We came up here and we anchored right out here somewhere, not too far from where we're living [on Grove street in Vineyard Haven]. Ross had come here a couple years earlier, and we got to know each other. He was also a sailor and very interested in boats and we were both trying to figure out how to make a living on this Island, working. He was building houses and moving houses and I was trying to do boat restorations.
In 1973, [Pam and I] sailed our boat to Majorca because I thought we wanted to go back there. Pam had pretty much decided by then that this was the place for us - and I guess I had too really - but I wanted another adventure. Then I left the boat over there with a friend, and we flew back to the Vineyard and put a down payment on this house. I wound up selling the boat to someone in Vineyard Haven when it was in Spain, so we put together a delivery crew to bring the boat back to the new owner. Ross was part of that crew, so he came back on this old 10-meter sloop - long, narrow, deep, old, fast, wet sailboat.
Ross had an old Casey Cutter - a 36-foot cutter - and he wanted to haul it out and do some work on it. So I helped him with that a little bit, re-canvassing the deck and putting in some frames and some things like that. We became friends and we would see each other at the various watering holes and restaurants and social occasions, which was part of the community - sort of the counter culture - that had invaded this Island.
Ross and I both had old boats. In those days, the local shipyards didn't let you work on them if you hauled out there. They had a policy that you couldn't work on them below the rail. That was understandable, but we really thought, gosh, wouldn't it be nice to have a little boat yard, kind of like some of the places we'd worked. I'd worked at one in Spain and took a boat to one in Morocco and Martinique and places like this, where they had these very simple old marine railways that were low investment and fairly easy to put together. We thought gosh, wouldn't it be great to have that in Vineyard Haven harbor, to have a little railway with a couple of cradles and be able to haul boats and people could do their own work - or if they needed our help, we would be glad to help them. So the idea evolved. It was really a pipe dream at first.
I think our first lease was for a hundred bucks a month. I wish it was that now. Every year business got a little better. It was all quite exciting. We were really enjoying it and we were also doing a lot of sailing. We bought an old Italian-build boat in the mid-eighties and we used to sail that around and do charters in the Caribbean and charters up here. That was the great thing about having this partnership - one of us could go away, and still the business could keep going. I still can't imagine running that business without a partner. I really wouldn't want to do it.
Ross is very focused. He's got a brilliant mechanical mind and a great engineering mind, and he's also very artistic. Boat designing and building is a combination of science and art and he had all the qualities that takes. I became interested in the design as well as the building pretty early on, so I taught myself yacht design and I'm still teaching myself yacht design. We've both learned together a lot of the boat building, because we didn't go to one of these boat building schools - I was raising a family and he was trying to earn a living here too - so we just really taught ourselves. A lot of our teaching was through repairing older boats. You learn by sort of forensic boat building what techniques work the best and what is proven and so forth.
We decided early on that we weren't into the racing circuit. We didn't want to design these super high-tech boats around racing formulas. First of all, we didn't have the technical expertise in either the design or the building, and we just weren't interested in them because they're very specialized. They're great for buzzing around buoys, but we were more interested in boats that you could take out on the ocean and go places. The day sailers that we built, we were interested in boats that a family could go out in and enjoy themselves and not need somebody in a trapeze to keep the thing from falling over. We sort of developed our own style and our own philosophy of how we wanted to design and build boats and then we just started doing it.
When we first met, we both had a lot of similar feelings not only about boat design and building but also about life in general. We were both vehemently opposed to the mega-mansions being built on this Island and a lot of the outrageous, unbridled development. We both, I think, have always had a strong environmental commitment, and I think we've always both had similar sensitivities as far as aesthetics - not the same, but a lot of common ground.
I enjoy working with Ross. As it turns out, we don't actually work together a whole lot, because we usually have a number of different projects going on.
He's certainly more skillful than I am in the engineering and the mechanical side of boat building. I do more of the design work, just because I've taken it up and chosen to do it. I have a little office here where I do the drawings for the boats we build, and then we collaborate together.
Partnerships, as I'm sure you know, are very often not terribly compatible. You often hear of partnerships that fail. I've been lucky. I've had two marriages that have worked really well - one with Pam and one with Ross [he laughs]. It takes understanding, it takes tolerance. There are a lot of things you have to do to keep it going. If one side or the other is inflexible, the partnership won't work, and that's why so many of them don't. I think we both are grateful for each other, because we can not only work well together, but we can work apart well and do what we need to do in our personal lives and not have to worry that the business will collapse because we're not there.
He's given back probably tenfold whatever I've ever given him. He's always very generous with his time, with his knowledge - and not just to me, to everybody. Someone asks him a question - doesn't matter who it is - he's going to give a thoughtful and intelligent answer. And that may be his strongest point. He's always willing to lend a hand or give good advice.
I really appreciate the way this has gone. It's a great way to pass some time. And I think we've created some pretty fine boats and friendships along the way.