Preview: The Influence of Joel White

“Whether it was counsel and encouragement with a construction or design problem, or going for an afternoon sail, you were always better off after a little time spent with Joel White.”

I moved to Brooklin, Maine in 1980, and part of the paraphernalia that I brought from our former digs in inland Belgrade was a half finished Nelson Zimmer Mackinaw boat (now part of WoodenBoat’s waterfront fleet.) Somehow, wind of this project must have come to Joel White’s ear, and one afternoon he stopped by to have a look. I had built a couple of simple boats before, but this was my first plank-on-frame boat, and I was far from expert in the technique. Joel offered encouragement and answered the few questions that I had sense enough to ask. It was a brief and rather awkward meeting, Joel being the taciturn Yankee, and I the dumbstruck newcomer.

In the fall of 1985 I decided that I’d had enough of house carpentry and would throw financial security to the winds to follow the path of a boatbuilder. Armed with a recently completed Nutshell pram as my resume, I approached Joel White with my heart in my mouth, asking for a job. Either the Nutshell did the trick, or else there were no other applicants, and I soon found myself part of the Brooklin Boat Yard crew.

At that time, “the Boat Yard” was still a small operation with a crew of about 10 souls, a wonderful assemblage of local old timers with two or three other apprentices “from away”, like me. Brooklin Boat Yard was at the beginning of a transition stage that would see Joel moving out of the shop and into the drafting room. Unfortunately for me, this meant that I got to work with him very little, but I clearly remember fitting deck beams to the scow schooner VINTAGE, with Joel on one end of each beam while I, equipped with ten thumbs, did my best on the other. It was a brief lesson, but the message was clear — spend some time on the things that really matter and don’t worry about the rest.

Often, Joel would join the crew at lunch or coffee break, and from some of his conversations there, it was clear that this man was convinced of two things. The first was that Brooklin, Maine, was the very best place is the world to be, and the second was that he had the very best job in that place. As a perennial malcontent, I at first found his faith in these tenets ludicrous, then puzzling, then enviable, and finally, after a few more years of Joel’s lessons, worthy of adoption. I ultimately came to believe that Brooklin was the best place in the world to be, and that Joel White did have the best job in town.

This was how Joel came to be my perfect role model. Of course, as a malcontent of modest talent, I could never hope to attain what he had accomplished so effortlessly. But still, it was worth trying, and right up until his death, Joel was always there to help. Whether it was counsel and encouragement with a construction or design problem, or going for an afternoon sail, you were always better off after a little time spent with Joel White. Words that came from his mouth were different from most – they meant exactly what they said, with no hidden meaning or agenda. He had his father’s gift for precise language, and when you were with him, you were blessed with his full attention.

Joel had spent most of his working life building boats and managing the boatyard, with little time left for design. But when his son Steve lifted that burden from his shoulders, he gratefully moved up to his wonderful design office overlooking Center Harbor. From there, he dove into an incredibly productive period, which was really just getting off the ground when he was taken by cancer.

Because Joel came at his design work from a lifetime of sailing and boatbuilding, you never had to worry if his designs would “work”, either in the shop or on the water. Although he had a degree in naval architecture from MIT (he and N. G. Herreshoff shared that alma mater) he was quick to point out that it had little application in his chosen field. His designs were like his speech –simple and right to the point. He didn’t worry himself with the “cutting edge” or with style. He simply borrowed from the past when it worked, but was happy to try something new if it looked promising.

“It’s really very simple” Joel would often say when I would present him with some problem that had been vexing me. He wasn’t being the slightest bit condescending – he was just saying “Relax! Life is really much simpler than you are trying to make it. Spend some time on the things that really matter and don’t worry about the rest.”

Joel White
Joel on Northern Crown

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10 Responses So Far to “The Influence of Joel White

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    Peter Pesce says:

    Nice to read this. Thank you! Never met Joel, never been to BBY, never sailed one of his boats, but I think I read Doug Whynott’s book in a single day. I even have, somewhere, a copy of “White on White” – Joel reading some of his father’s work – on cassette!

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    Alan Scott says:

    I had the honor of working for Joel White, shortly after moving to Maine in 1971. I had gone to Maine Maritime Academy, married a Castine, Maine, girl and Maine was where both of us wanted to be, and still are.

    The memories of sitting around the two-barrel woodstove with Joel, Henry Lawson, Belford Gray, Ken Tainter, Sonny and others whose names I cannot now recall, are still very much with me and remain one of the happiest times in my life. I put on paint and varnish until it was too cold in the big sheds to dry it properly and, when it came time to leave the yard for the winter, it was with genuine sadness. Part of that sadness was knowing how much I would miss working for Joel. His gentle manner, confidence in his knowledge, and sense of humor created a wonderful atmosphere in the yard. You wanted to do your best for him.

    Joel’s passing from cancer left a big hole, even after knowing him for only a short time.

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    JUAN URIBE says:

    At 43 years old I decided to take my savings and move with my wife and two kids to Brooklin to learn how to build woodenboats. The crazy thing is that I am from Bogotá, Colombia at 8400 feet above sea level on the Andean mountains and far away from the ocean.I found a Woodenboat magazine and flew to Maine. Rented a small house and took every possible program at Woodenboat school until winter closed and my money was gone. Since my first hands on boat was a Shellback, I kept it in front of Brooklin Boat Yard and we raced our Shellbacsk against each other with other artist that worked at BBY. I was so proud of having met such a wonderful person even that he won all the races.

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    Geoff Wade says:

    I’m half way through building a Haven 12 1/2- my first sail boat. I sure wish a legend like Joel White could stop by and offer me some advice!

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    Glenn Baker says:

    We never met but I feel like I knew Joel since I’ve read just about everything his parents wrote. And learned more about the man when Douglas Whynott wrote the book “A unit of water, a unit of time, Joel White’s Last Boat” in 1999.

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      Alan Scott says:

      I treasure my copy of Douglas Whynott’s book. Reading it brings to mind a story that didn’t make it into the book, but which I will relate here.

      Henry Lawson’s machine shop was on the water end of the main building and Henry would on occasion provide a special welcome for certain of the yard’s customers. He would don a doctor’s white coat and eye mirror, place a foam coffee cup upside down on his workbench, squirt a bit of acetylene into the cup, where it would rise and stay. Then, as the customer was coming down the passageway from the front door, Henry would touch off the acetylene in the cup, with a tremendous bang, and peer around the corner of the machine shop doorway with eye mirror and white coat. Joel, escorting the customer, would feign horror, followed by his quiet laugh.

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    Jeffrey Wright says:

    There is a bit of the essence of life in these words. Something too seldom enjoyed and experienced by most, especially in this day of gadgets. I have come to love the simple things in life. Give me a well sharpened Lie-Nielsen hand plane and a piece of wood, and I can have hours of blissful fun.

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    William Boulden says:

    You very beautifully captured the spirit of man that inspires so many of us who did not have the priviledge of living near such marvelous people and places and yet are struck by the soul and life of wooden sailboats. Thank you.

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    Benjamin Mendlowitz says:

    Thanks Doug, This triggered some very nice memories of Joel, visits to his design office, sails on Northern Crown, sailing in company on different boats and ending up in the same anchorage – always that wonderful smile that said we were pretty lucky to be doing it all.

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    Howard Sharp says:

    I wish I could have met him. A nice piece of writing.