Email This Page to a FriendPreview: The Influence of Joel White
March 6, 2012
“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.”