Why I am a Boatbuilder (and Not a Doctor), by Harry Bryan

April 16, 2013

Avatar Harry Bryan

The purpose of this short autobiographical essay, that I wrote for a local high school job fair, is to offer encouragement to students who are not having an easy time in school. 

My father was a doctor.  His father died when Dad was quite young, leaving little money for my grandmother and her five children.  Dad worked hard to help the family and eventually to put himself through medical school.  Having been driven by necessity to become a financial success, he had little tolerance for those who did not work hard, and little understanding of how artistic pursuits could be as valuable as a professional career. 

From as far back as I can remember I built things, and I took other things apart to see how they were made.  Dad had a hobby-type woodworking shop, and I inherited a set of books called The Boy Mechanic from my uncles.  These were old books, published soon after the invention of the automobile and the airplane, and their magic was in telling young readers that building these marvels was something that they could do themselves. However, I do not think that either the shop or The Boy Mechanic books initiated the desire to create things with my hands.  It is more likely that that was a part of my personality from birth.

My father warned me that I could not make a comfortable living from a shop. It was understood that I would become a doctor or lawyer, and thus have the money and time to set up a shop as a hobby. 

My formal schooling was not successful.  I could not concentrate in class or make myself do homework.  Each report card sent home for a parental signature resulted in stern discipline. It wasn’t the low grades that made Dad so angry as much as the teacher’s rating of my effort…..poor. 

My parents paid to send me to a private high school with the hope that my grades and attitude would improve.  They did not, and I was bothered by a sense of guilt for wasting money spent on tuition as well as a growing concern as to how I would support myself as an adult.  My high school class of 88 students was graduated in 1964.  I was rated 88th

Throughout these years I spent all the time that I could in the school shop or, on vacations, in the shop at home.  I made go-carts, furniture, rockets, and boats.  I wanted to build more boats.  Instead, I went to university for a year and a half, then dropped out.

After four years in military service, I tried school again.  Here, I was influenced by two people who told me the same thing that the publishers of The Boy Mechanic had told me many years before.  The first person, who was a teacher, told me that I should do what I loved doing, and learn through that love.  He told me that sitting in rows and memorizing information was not the best way for some people to learn.  The second person told me that if I wanted to spend my life building boats then that’s what I should do.  I will always be in debt to that teacher who suggested that it wasn’t necessarily my fault that school was so hard for me.  I married the second person.

Harry & Martha raise sail after their wedding

Because of these two people, I now believed in myself.  I went to the university library as often as I could and learned about tools and materials, about boats, about gardening, and about how to construct buildings.  I never did graduate because it no longer mattered.  I had learned how to learn, and that is the most important thing a school can teach.

My father was right.  Few people make very much money creating things in a small shop.  A modest income, however, can be sufficient if it’s combined with a frugal lifestyle. Anything you don’t buy is like money in your pocket.  Anything you do or make for yourself teaches you skills, as well as costing less than paying someone else to do it for you.  We have been taught that a key to financial security is specialization. It is more likely that the foundation of real security is diversity.  To make ends meet, I not only build boats, but write about them, sell plans, and teach the skills of boatbuilding and woodworking to others.  My shop can build other things of wood besides boats, if need be. 

I often think that if I had been a good student, I might have spent my working life doing something unsuited to me.  I can’t go back in time to avoid those years of uncertainty, but I can try to reach out to others who are struggling in school and ask them what it is that they really like doing and urge them to believe in themselves and do it.

Harry Bryan, April, 2013


33 Responses So Far to “Why I am a Boatbuilder (and Not a Doctor), by Harry Bryan”:

  1. Avatar Jerry Hickman says:

    Harry , this story , your autobiography is incredible how my story is so so closely similar. I too came from a very educated family and couldn’t, didn’t live up to their schooling , expectations. I graduate in 1965 from high school , in a class of 65. My grade level was much higher than yours ( C’s and D’s ) lol. I too tried college , probation after 1st semester. Military, 4 years Air Force, tried college again. Nope ! Worked, then took an aptitude test, attended drafting school. Career of mechanical piping designer for 40+ years. Now adding to my cedar strip canoe , I built from scratch. Outriggers and hand made sail ( balanced lug sail ), anticipating R2AK in 2022.

  2. Avatar Harry J Pedlow says:

    This is exactly what I went through in my youth. My father was a doctor and education was everything to him. I had the extra teachers and classes, it made little difference.
    I truly believe your words and experiences could help so many. I ended up being a pretty darn good carpenter.
    Great letter
    Thank you

  3. Avatar Conbert Benneck says:

    I have had a marvelous career in the aviation industry; solving problems in airplanes; and being a tiny cog in a huge machine advancing transportation. However, creating something in my shop, boat building; learning celestial navigation, and being Captain of my own vessel out on the ocean fills me with satisfaction of having learned and mastered an ancient trade.
    Harry is a master of his universe. He has the joy and fun or thinking up new and interesting problems to solve every day, and has the tools, know-how, and experience to make it work.
    Congratulations Harry. You are a beacon to all poor learners, showing them that they can do it, without a school diploma.

  4. Avatar Alfred Jensen says:

    Harry Bryan reminds me of my older brother who built two beautiful racing boats, one a class
    C Hydro,the other a utility runabout, He also made a pattern of pine and mahogany, when he brought the pattern to the foundry to be cast , the foundry boss was astonished at the quality
    of his pattern and remarked ” I haven’t seen quality like this in forty years!”
    His public school history ended in junior high.
    PS; People need to do what they like and do best.

  5. Avatar Stephen Perreault says:

    Harry, I’m a doctor who would probably be happier as a boat builder!

  6. Richard Greenway Richard Greenway says:

    There are a lot of us out there Harry.

  7. Avatar Zoran Glozinic says:

    well I have nothing more to say after all the comments above except God bless you Harry …

  8. Avatar Warren Peluso says:

    Harry, you are an inspiration to us all. I hope you are passing on your life experience to youngsters that can benefit from your knowledge and wisdom.

  9. Avatar Bob Shipman says:

    Two out of two… married the perfect lady and worked doing exactly what you wanted to do!
    Perfect score in any school.
    Harry, you are a blessing to us all.

  10. Avatar Robin DeArmas says:

    I’ve never taken one of Harry’s courses but there is still time. I will very soon. His article is a telling one. I practiced medicine happily for over thirty years all the while enjoying woodworking as a hobby. Unlike far too many of my associates in medicine, woodworking and eventually boatbuilding (i just finished and launched an Adirondack Guideboat, started in a class at Brooklin) provided for me the transition from “I am a doctor” to “I used to be a doctor”. Far too many of my colleagues have been miserable in retirement because nothing inspires them any more and far too many more hanf on long after they should quit.

  11. Avatar Harry H Risley says:

    At 72 I have been diagnosed with ADD. I did poorly in school just barely getting by. I tried college, in those days you must, and dropped out. Joined the Air Force, where it was decided that I must be in Electronics, more school, did not do well.

    The thing is I loved boats, planes and sports cars. I was an absolute genius, when it came to knowledge about those things that I was interested in. Read everything I could find on them.

    Sometime about 30 years old it dawned on me that there was nothing really wrong with me, That I just had to be interested to be able to learn.

    Thank you Harry, for letting others know what it is like, and that there is nothing wrong with a person that can’t do well in an organized classroom environment.

  12. Avatar David Sinclair says:

    Nice article. I thus ponder ‘why am I a Doctor (and not a Boatbuilder)?’

  13. Avatar Charles Jahn says:

    An open letter to Mr. Bryan,

    I’m a 16 year old high schooler who has been obsessed with boats for most of my life and also dislikes school (to say the least). It gives me such a reassuring bit of support to read this. I myself want to build and design boats and have been told of the stresses of a life like Harry’s, but I know that I am my happiest when I’m in the woods, working with my hands, and learning/making boats. To read this post is like someone sending a message from the other side saying it’s possible. Thank you Harry Bryan.

    Han-Ray Jahn

    • Steve Stone Steve Stone says:

      Han-Ray. Thanks for posting your letter to Harry. It sure is rewarding to read your perspective and know that this has helped you. I recall lots of people saying the same thing about the stresses and poverty associated with filmmaking (and playing with boats) in my youth. It didn’t make a lot of sense to study filmmaking at the time, as the MBA degree was the hot ticket. Things have a way of working out when you do what you enjoy and work with people you like and respect. Sometimes it takes awhile.

  14. Avatar Dean Lohse says:

    As a man who spent his entire adult life learning to be a doctor and then being a doctor (because that was what I was created to do), I have found that since giving up practice four years ago, I find as much satisfaction, and much more peace, in building small boats. You got it right, Harry. I’m so glad you can love what you do.

  15. Avatar Paul Gill says:

    There’s nothing wrong with Harry Bryan’s intellect. Everyone who reads WOODENBOAT or who has sailed PATIENCE B knows that Harry is a very smart fella indeed. Our educational system, on the other hand, places a premium on absorbing information and regurgitating it on exams. Creativity is largely not encouraged. How sad…

  16. Avatar David Satter says:

    Well said, I’ve been working with my hands since high school. 30 years ago. I Took a few classes at Wooden Boat and I was hooked. I’ve been Building and repairing furniture and boats in my shop ever since. Was never able to sit at a desk for long. Love what I do,make a modest living, knees and elbows ache, but wouldn’t trade it for the world or more money.

  17. Avatar Denis Noble says:

    Harry, you’re so right about doing what you love doing. That love was put into each of us at birth or before, and if we choose a different path we probably will never be as happy as we could have been. I wish I’d realised that 50 years ago. But no matter; now I’m doing what I love to do, which includes building a boat (one down, one more to go, at least) and painting pictures.

  18. Avatar carl prestipino says:

    Harry, I just realized that you wrote this blog on the exact day I retired (on my 62nd birthday) after working 33 yrs in the Corporate world at a job I was good at, but did not really enjoy – I kept saying gratification would come later as people would undoubtably recognize my talents and promote me – but it didn’t happen, as they were mostly just concerned about making themselves look good while maintaining the status quo for everybody else to support them on their promotional journey. Well, I’m trying to make up for lost time now as much as possible by doing manual labor on fixing up my old house, and using/doing minor fixes on wooden boats. Building them requires more skill than I have time to learn I’m afraid. Or am I still making excuses (I wonder)?

  19. Avatar Clyde Davis says:

    “Wise” is certain!

    “I spent happy, often tiring, wet, and dirty years exposed to boats in yards, machine shops, sail lofts, and foundries, along with plenty of sailing. It was certainly no way to get rich, except in varied experiences, which are often the greatest riches of all.” -Pete Culler (I am feeding a crush on his Coskata design.)

    I was pretty good with books. Now in retirement I struggle with learning to build Oughtred designs, marlingspike, and sailing. I struggle but I love It! I see this as a different slice of the same pie you eloquently describe. So, your block plane piece is just the kind of thing I need!

  20. Avatar Alan Peck says:

    Wish I had read something like this years ago. Great and all too rare wisdom.

  21. Avatar Gary McClain says:

    I’m a doctor who loves his profession, but I am definitely passing this bit of wisdom on to my sons.

  22. Avatar jason thatcher says:

    Harry, I have had the good fortune of building Daisy with a group of friends, one of whom was a retired doctor who attended your class at Wooden Boat back in the nineties.. The boat is out back.. needs a bit of work. but what an experience we had, meeting on friday nights for pizza and then making our way out to the shop. You can take a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that you have influenced hundreds, probably thousands of people over the years in many ways. As a teacher in a private school, I struggle with the fact that, if you were in school today, teachers may well have suggested the idea of putting you on meds.. and it is likely that your folks would go along with it… and, perhaps you would do better at paying attention.. but you would still be miserable, sitting in your seat day in and day out.. in fact, I advise a student much like that, and we had a conversation this morning. She told me that she wanted to go back to public school where she could take shop and learn to weld.. but her mother won’t think of it. I told her that next year we could build a six hour canoe.. her eyes lit up and she readily agreed.. maybe i will have a story to tell next year! jt

  23. Avatar Jerry Rose says:

    Great Blog Harry. I think you have spoken for many, many people of which a whole slew of them now reside and work as boatbuilders, artists, writers, photographers,sculptors and musicians in Brooklin, Maine.

  24. Avatar Bruce Robbins says:

    Wonderful blog, Harry! I always admire those who are able to use their hands skillfully, as I struggle to use tools because of cerebral palsy.

  25. Avatar J.D. Bondy says:

    In about 2005, while taking a class at the Wooden Boat School, Harry Bryan randomly asked me (I was not taking his class) if I was a doctor. I guess I know now that he could just tell, him being the son of a doctor! Fortunately, this doctor agrees wholeheartedly that the key to security is diversity, and not becoming too engrossed in just one pursuit. It’s a blessing enjoying not only the practice of medicine, but many other interests including boats and boatbuilding.

  26. Avatar Thomas Morgan says:

    To all current and future Harry Bryans Hang in there and experience the joy of building things. The world needs more builders

  27. Avatar Tim Lang says:

    Great blog. I very much admire Harry Bryan’s courage to follow his passion. I, too, spent a lot of time as a kid building things, including a couple poor attempts at boats. Now, 25 years later, I’m well into a career as a lawyer, and I still find myself building things or thinking about building things (I’m currently in the middle of building Ingrid 38 from a bare hull). No significant regrets on my career choice, but I very much enjoy reading about those who have made a life building wooden boats. Thanks for sharing your story.

  28. Avatar john pyle says:

    I can very much identify with Harry. I grew up in a wealthy community where anything blue coller was frowned upon. I hated school, performed poorly, and felt guilty and anxious. During the eighth and ninth grade, after building model boats, I built a malibu ouitrigger in my garage. It was my pride and joy and I sat in class after that dreaming about sailing and still earning poor grades. I later got into fixing cars and planes. This activity was great therapy though I think I was cheated out of something important by my familys and communities attitude. I now have a masters degree and practice psychotherapy. I miss boatbuilding and have lost confidence in my ability though I have become somewhat obsessed with building a calidonia yawl. I am still stew about giving it a try and am looking foward to Geoff Kerr’s vidio.

    • Avatar Steve Stone says:

      Wonderful note, John. Thank you. I wonder how many of us there were out there amidst the rise of white collar-ness in the second half of the last century. Hang on for the ride, the Cal Yawl series should be a delight for you.

  29. Avatar Larry Cheek says:

    Do what you love doing, and believe in yourself. These are Harry’s two core messages, and they practically form the essence of creating the life well-lived. Thanks to Harry for a memorable and useful autobiographical lesson.

    I recommend the book “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford, published about four years ago. Crawford has a Ph.D in philosophy but works as a motorcycle mechanic, and he probes into the underappreciation of creative and thoughtful manual work today. In some parts of the book Crawford unfortunately feels the need to flex his Ph.D, and it gets a little arid, but I’ve underlined the good stuff and return to it often. Crawford writes about quality manual work as a moral virtue, something I suspect Harry Bryan would agree with.

  30. Avatar Richard W. Jacks says:

    Well said.

  31. Avatar Charles Barclay says:

    Blessed be Harry Bryan.

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