The Education of Myles Thurlow: A Proper Apprenticeship
October 20, 2016
NOTE: This article was originally published in WoodenBoat Magazine, Issue 178: May/June 2004. Photographs by Benjamin Mendlowitz.
Myles Thurlow began his shipyard apprenticeship in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, at age 12, doing the usual scut work: sweeping up, setting bungs, and, because he was small, crawling into bilges too cramped for grown men. In the early months, it became clear that he possessed a long attention span and was a quick study. Because of this, men at the yard went out of their way to help him, knowing that what they taught him would stick.
Myles had high standards, he never seemed to get underfoot, and he showed up in the worst kind of winter weather. By his late teen's the boy was a full-fledged boatbuilder and seaman, regularly shipping out on schooners to the West Indies.
In the 19th century, a skilled tradesman like Myles commonly learned his work by doing it from an early age. Myles, however, is not common. He served his apprenticeship in the teeth of the 1990s, and today, at 20 years old, is a skilled rigger, boatbuilder, and mariner.
A lot has changed since the 19th century, when kids regularly crossed the blurry line dividing play from work. States have an obligation to oversee the education of children. Labor laws, insurance requirements, and OSHA rules tend to keep kids from skipping formal education and going down to someplace like a shipyard to learn a trade and a way of life. The protective intentions of such regulations are obvious, but they do conspire against a kid like Myles. His accomplishments, therefore, did not come easily—and they took a bit of luck.
Myles's parents, as well as various non-boatyard mentors and nontraditional schools, were important to his education. But the irreplaceable factor in his development was the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway and its circle of affiliates. Ostensibly an enterprise specializing in the construction and care of wooden boats built in the traditional manner, G & B regularly overflows this mission to become a way of looking at things beyond mere boats—a repository for a set of aesthetic principles and a wistfully homespun yet surprisingly resilient force counterpoised against the galloping horde of free-spending conquistadors invading Martha's Vineyard every summer.
When Myles showed up at Gannon & Benjamin at barely 12 years of age, he quickly rubbed shoulders with a workforce of men and women with a genius for fusing work into the whole of life. Many of them were independent contractors living on their own boats, free from oppressive real-estate prices ashore, free to do their work the right way (not just the quick way), and free to sail away when they had to. For $18-$20 an hour in wages plus a free crack at the railway and use of the yard's machinery after regular hours, an affiliate could keep a boat afloat and turn the dream of extended cruising into a reality.
The effect of Myles’s total immersion in such a community of craftsman boatbuilders was profound. Such communities are virtually nonexistent in the United States today, and we now think of their alternative—offshore mass-production cornucopias jamming us with all manner of branded goods—as the normal order of things. But the fact is that Americans have behaved this way only since the end of WWII. Before that, in spite of major inroads already made by industrialism, the fashioning of objects used in daily life was often a face-to-face matter with human beings either making the things they needed, or if not, knowing the person who did.
In prewar America, if one were to engage the services of a carpenter, machinist, welder, boatbuilder, butcher, seamstress, or the like, a customer often collaborated with the craftsman about the design decisions under consideration before the first cuts were made. This collaboration refined popular tastes and built communities that seemed to know, intuitively, how things should look. In the pre-prehung door era, for instance, one might have considered the options for door trim or how heavy its hinges should be. The simple business of daily living made people literate in the vernacular style of a given place. The differences between those times and the present are not trivial. They explain, at least in part, why the designs of houses in prewar neighborhoods fit together comfortably while today’s assemblage of over-architected insta-mansions seem alarmingly discordant. The differences in eras might explain why boat design has gone from the modeled to the molded. They also help explain the education of Myles Thurlow.
In the making-things-by-hand retro-bubble of the Gannon & Benjamin boatyard, Myles would be exposed to the full force of on-the-job designing from day one. What kind of taper should that gaff or boom have? How much crown on that railcap? In short time, answers to questions like these would be up to him. What size fastenings for those anchor chocks? How many tucks in that backstay splice? Decisions, decisions. Aesthetic ones. Life and death ones. The choices Myles learned to make are those that push a boat toward becoming a whole. They are essential elements of the shipwright's trade.
From a young age, Myles displayed an artistic interest and an uncanny ability to solve complex perspective problems in the art classes offered by Nat Benjamin's wife, Pam. Full immersion in the Gannon & Benjamin engineering and aesthetic ethos resonated deeply in him. He's never gotten over it.
One afternoon I was watching Myles and Scotty DiBiasi, the captain of the newly commissioned 65’ Gannon & Benjamin schooner JUNO, puzzling over where and how to stow the three-piece, 200-lb Paul Luke storm anchor in the forepeak. As they experimented fitting pieces first one way, then the other, it became clear that both men were aware of the forces involved, playing out in their imaginations what might happen if any of the big parts were to jump loose and sledgehammer against the hull in a head sea. With no plans to follow on that drizzly November afternoon only days before JUNO—the yard's biggest project to date—was slated to head off into the wilds of the Gulf Stream on her way South, everything was up to them. Just as it should have been-especially because both Scotty and Myles would make up part of the crew taking JUNO on her maiden offshore voyage.
The care Myles took with that anchor echoed the care he had taken fashioning JUNO's standing rigging. Wire rope and the tried-and-true techniques of the Liverpool splice are a Gannon & Benjamin trademark. I've always been interested in Nat Benjamin's thinking on design decisions, so to educate myself further I read about the choice of spliced standing and running rigging and its advantages in rigger Brion Toss's well-regarded book, The Rigger's Apprentice (International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 1998):
Many sailors prefer eyespliced wire rigging to rigging with mechanical terminals, even though a wide variety of mechanical terminals is available. Why? Splices are flexible and resilient and thus long-lived. They also are easy to maintain and inspect, have no abrupt shoulders to snag other objects or jam in sheaves, and are cost effective even if you pay someone else to make them for you. Do-it-yourselfers spend nothing but time on their spliced terminals. And if you plan a leisurely sail across the Pacific, you rigging vise and ditty bag contents are all you need to be a self-sufficient rigger.
Nat concurs with these advantages and doesn't worry that, wire for wire, manufactured terminals are 10% to 15% stronger than spliced ones. He'll simply specify wire rope that's 1/16” heavier to make up the difference and live with the incrementally increased windage aloft. It's more than a battle between old and new technologies. For Nat, the clincher lies in the doing of the thing. "Do you want to throw in a little skill here," he asks with a rhetorical chuckle, ''or just call some guy on an 800 number to deliver the rig in a box so that the only skill ends up being getting the clevis pin in the hole?" By now both of us are enjoying this little victory for the way things used to be.
Of course, things have to be done right. Splicing wire rope is not for the casually engaged practitioner who'd rather be out at the beach. To work to its optimum, a Liverpool splice's every tuck and lay and rolling home must place each of the some 42 wire yarns into precise harmonic tension with each of its brother yarns. Only then does the splice achieve functioning unity. Only then, with the wind shrieking and the boat crashing into mountainous seas, with forces on the rig aloft dialing way beyond anticipated extremes of loading-only then can crew members be thinking about what's coming along for breakfast instead of what might, all too soon, becoming down on their heads. For the critical, painstaking, clogged work of fashioning dozens upon dozens of Liverpool splices, nobody had any qualms about asking Myles Thurlow to do the job, even though he was still a teenager.
For all the magic of the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, little of what Myles has become as a shipwright, rigger, or sailor might have happened without the concurrence and intuition of his parents—and some remarkable teachers and schools. Principal among these is Sidney Morris, founder of the Sant Bani (“voices of the saints" in Hindi) School that Myles initially attended. Later, Sidney started the Vineyard Public Charter School. Each institution seemed tailor-made for Myles. The first nurtured his independence and creativity, the second cut him sufficient slack with local and state authorities so he could work at Gannon & Benjamin pretty much full time. Sidney also helped Myles's mother, Martha, and father, Paul, understand that to build the self-direction they wanted for their children, parents and teachers must let a child make his own decision about what and how to learn.
This may seem like no big deal, but consider its implications. At the beginning of life—and with very little useful input from grown-ups-children tirelessly teach themselves complex skills like learning to walk and talk. A toddler's energy and curiosity are both relentless and a little scary. My two-year-old grandson wants to light the gas oven with a match, go down to the road by himself to where the big trucks go by, and do artwork on the walls. For the safety of the child, adults hit the brakes. Matches are stowed. Trucks get watched from behind a fence. Coloring is done in books. For their survival (and because they are small), children cede their education to others, and with it a lot of initiative. Learning becomes structured. Coloring goes inside the lines. Dick's wheelbarrow ends up an official wheelbarrow color, like blue. Spot the dog will have spots. And so it goes, all the way to school and seats in rows.
Martha Thurlow would have none of this. Her day wasn't about to be ruined if Myles did a little drawing on the walls. This set her toward a remarkable discovery: Growth can't happen without risk. The risks Myles took would come in many forms. One day he and a friend built a wooden boat at Sant Bani for the sole purpose of floating it on the pond and setting it on fire (not exactly a lesson plan at PS 126). A year or so later he borrowed a sailboat from a friend, pushed things too far in breezy conditions, broke the mast, was delighted by the learning experience provided, and quickly set about making a new one. Finally, there was the day he came home and told his mother that things were pretty cool down at Gannon & Benjamin because "they really trust us there." He could really screw stuff up bad, but they let him do it anyway. It was then that Martha knew the boatyard was the right place for Myles.
"To a teenager," she says, "they need to be trusted. Trusted with the full knowledge they can blow it. Being trusted was critical to his continuing interest. So I had to let go of my fears early. I knew he could cut off fingers down there… And now he's going up there on those masts…”
As for his own education, Myles sees it this way: "The best way to learn something is to get thrown into a project that is way over your head. This is how Ross [Gannon] teaches. He just seems to understand when you' re ready to get it done."
And if you're not ready? If you mess up?
"Usually that means you get to do it again. And you don't put in for the hours, either. If you're not ready," he says, grinning a little, "you've got to be prepared to put in some extra time.
"The biggest challenge is to have self-confidence to do stuff," he goes on. "Some people have it. I don't think I have very much. But you've got this huge piece of wood and you're about to put it through the saw, and you know the mark of a good boatbuilder is that you've got to get things done quickly, so you don't think about it too much and just do it."
Shipwright Andy Lyan, who Myles regards as among the best craftsmen and teachers at the yard, sees Myles's education this way: "He's really the product of everybody. He's an easy learner. I can't remember really teaching him anything. He was just watching, and then he'd do it. We've had other kids here that weren't so eager. When you walked away, they'd stop. With Myles, he'd pick up the tool and keep working."
Although for most of his career Myles has worked for Gannon & Benjamin, a rare opportunity came his way when Sidney Morris and others put together a sail training program for island youth called Vineyard Voyagers and asked Myles to design and build a boat capable of taking six or eight kids and a couple of instructors on extended voyages. Under the auspices of the Charter School, Myles had already spent time studying naval architecture with Nat Benjamin.
He based his design on the No Mans Land boats. These are seaworthy, carry a load, can be rowed when the wind dies; they also have a historical connection to the waters around Martha's Vineyard, where they served as fishing boats in the 19th century. The 28' lapstrake No Mans Land boat MABEL was built to Myles's design in a shop adjacent to G & B. On her first voyage last summer, she carried seven kids and a couple of adults down the Connecticut shore and up the Hudson to the Clearwater Music and Environmental Festival at Croton-on- Hudson, a 180-mile trip (six days and nights on the water in an open boat) and then home again without mishap.
Mastering steep learning curves, justifying risks, earning trust, and winning the affection of everyone in the Vineyard's wooden boat building community over many years, Myles was becoming well known. Jim Lobdell, a former island high school shop teacher, Gannon & Benjamin affiliate, skipper of WHEN AND IF, and owner of MALABAR II (both Alden schooners), had seen Myles around the yard when he was in an experimental green-hair phase and pretty much let it go at that. When WHEN AND IF's first mate quit unexpectedly at the start of a summer season and Nat suggested Myles, Jim was skeptical. As teachers in local schools, both Jim and his wife, Ginny, had opinions about kids with green hair.
"We worked with kids all year long and the idea of some teenager on the boat for the summer, well, it wasn't very appealing. But he turned out just great. Ginny's tough. As a couple, we've got things on a boat worked out. I mean I'm not just jumping into the dishpan after supper. So Ginny cooked for the guests and Myles cleaned everything up. But Ginny's the kind of cook who really sails. So it came out even. He did a lot of dishes, but in the middle of the night when it started to blow, she was out on the end of the bowsprit taking in the jib with him. So they got along great.
"We're cohesive here," Jim goes on, speaking about Vineyard Haven's world of schooners. "Like a family. I think that's a reason he took to it all. It gave him a place to belong to. There's real rules here. And they made sense to him. And unlike modern boats, on one of these schooners, there's a lot to do. And that's good for a kid." So good for a kid, in fact, that Myles became an expert seaman who has qualified for his 100-ton license and whom Jim invited to sail the schooner ADVENTURE from Sri Lanka, through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean last winter. As Jim puts it, "I have no qualms about going down below when it's blowing and flatass dark. I know he can handle it."
Myles's final exam in rigging came last December, south of the Gulf Stream in 18 hours of 50-knot headwinds and heavy, rig-wrecker seas that dismasted a modern 65-footer sailing on the same course nearby. Except for a torn staysail, JUNO went through the blow unscathed. As his education aboard and around boats continues, Myles Thurlow will take other final exams. Chances are, he'll be the valedictorian of a school of his own devising.
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