The story of the building of the schooner Charlotte is a true Vineyard tale. Tonight at 7 p.m. the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival will open the weekend’s festivities with a documentary about the building of this wooden boat.
The film is called Charlotte. But the title feels too narrow for it is far more than a story about one big sailboat or one beloved boatyard. It is the story of a people and a community with a love of the sea.
The film, directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, is a profile of the crew of Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, their story, their tools, their humor and, especially, their commitment to building fine wooden boats.
Some may be familiar with the publication last year of Schooner, Building a Wooden Boat on Martha’s Vineyard, by Tom Dunlop with photographs by Alison Shaw. Vineyard Stories published this book on the 30th anniversary of the boatyard. The movie and book are made of the same piece of wood, but are honed by different craftsmen.
The principal players in both the book and movie are the same: Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon and a number of their friends. The buildings and many of the tools are the same too. A number of the boatbuilders who assisted, and the boats in the marine railway, are different, though. Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway is the Island’s Grand Central Station of like-minded sailors.
The 50-foot schooner Charlotte was to be Nat Benjamin’s personal boat, thus the journey feels deeply personal from the start. The film opens with a scene of Mr. Benjamin sketching out one of his designs with pencil on paper. The project ultimately took four years. During this time the marine railway built and restored many other boats.
Cinematographer Brian Dowley spent a lot of time at the boatyard capturing the details of woodchips flying in the air with the pressure of a hand on a chisel. He was there through the snowstorms of winter, the hot days of August, at all hours of the day and sometimes at night. He also captured the humor of the marine railway, a key ingredient on the waterfront. To get the particular feel of the place you have to be there to hear it fresh and live. Soundman George Shafnacker didn’t miss a whisper. Nor did he miss the roar of the huge wood planer that resides on site, the sound of the shipwright easing a plank into place and the caulker with his tools.
In a documentary revealing people at work there is no rehearsing, no time for combing one’s hair or putting on a clean shirt. But again, this story isn’t just about a schooner being built. It is about a community having faith in itself, the fellowship of working with one another for a shared purpose and a centuries-old relationship with the sea. Consequently, what drives the film is not the outcome, which is known, but rather seeing these people intimately embrace the many pieces of this journey. The movie is a testament to this waterfront community and how essential it is to the Island.
As with any journey, though, to look back is to also experience loss. The movie is dedicated to two people who appear in the film: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, captain of the sailboat, Mya, and Maynard Silva, the Vineyard’s late blues musician, who painted boat names on the stern of many Gannon and Benjamin boats.
When the curtain drops there won’t be a dry eye in the place.