- by Carol Standish
If you love the myth of the archetypal “salt of the earth” Mainer—a person of few words and many skills, honest, self-sufficient, innately wise and matter-of-factly philosophical about whatever life deals out—Ralph Stanley will be your new hero by the time you finish his book. Ralph Stanley - Tales of a Maine Boatbuilder (Down East Books, 160pp, 100 b&w photos and drawings, $25) reveals a man who Roger Duncan describes as “an artist in wood, a gifted marine architect, a businessman, a musician, a historian and a firmly independent soul.”
Stanley has built classic wooden work, pleasure, power and sailboats (mainly Friendships) in Manset, Maine since 1952. His book is unique among biographies in both tone and format, capturing as it delightfully does, Stanley’s nuanced views of people and events in his own distinctively down east phrasing and vocabulary. In a collection of stories to his collaborator, Craig Milner, during a series of recorded interviews which began in 1998, Stanley recounts the high (and low) points of his long and accomplished life.
Stanley’s stories are as much a treasure as his legacy of boats. Milner is to be congratulated for his light touch in organizing and editing his tapes, leaving Stanley’s life and character expressed in his own terms, unembellished and unfiltered through an outsider lens. He resists the temptation to comment or explain adding only a glossary and a list of more than 60 boats built by Stanley alone or with his sons.
The stories are divided into 30 chapters, roughly chronological but the subjects range from family matters to fiberglass. The first chapter, “My Father was a Fisherman” tells the tale of Stanley’s father “going adrift” in an open boat in the winter time. “I learned a lot from that experience,” says Stanley. The reader might well doubt that conclusion because Stanley was only four at the time, but it becomes apparent that he “learns a lot” from just about every experience.
An extraordinary observer with an extraordinary brain to process those observations, he carved boat hulls as a kid and started his first boat in the winter of 1950 at the age of 21. “All I needed was something like $150 to buy materials for a 28-foot lobster boat...so I got a job that summer...and that fall start[ed] my boat...I didn’t have very many tools to begin with, just the essentials and that was it.”
And he never worked as a carpenter. “It just seemed to come to me. I’d just go around to boat shops on the island and see how they’d done it. Then I’d go back and figure out what I could do.” In fact he hadn’t considered making a living as a boat builder but soon after finished his first boat—intended for his own use, “along came Dick Yates and wanted me to build him a boat. I couldn’t wait to get started. And people have been after me to build boats for them ever since.”
Stanley tells stories about his bout with pneumonia, getting married and having four kids, hard financial times, his research into local history, the good times playing the fiddle, his trip to Sardinia to attend the launching of one of his boats and his trip to Washington, D.C to receive a National Heritage Fellowship presented by President and Mrs. Clinton—all with the same incredulity laced humility. “I brought back my ten-thousand dollar check...I guess it was quite an honor. I wish some of the people that helped me get started were around to see it...Somebody asked me later how I felt about this award, and I said I didn’t know. I’m not doing anything different than any other boat builder I ever knew when I was a kid, and I don’t know as it’s as much. But I guess that I’m the one that’s left, and I’ve kept with it...”
Explaining why he never took to fiberglass as a boat building material he says, “you could say that the fiberglass boat moves on the water, while a wooden boat moves through the water...and with wood you’re standing on something that once had life...What keeps my interest is to be able to think about how to make it different. When you build in wood, every boat’s a new boat to build...a new challenge. But if you’ve got that fiberglass mold, there’d be no challenge anymore.”
His conclusion, “boats have been evolving this way for thousands of years in wood. If everybody just stopped building in wood, the art of building a boat would soon be lost.”
Today Ralph W. Stanley, Inc is thriving. Son, Edward is a very good designer, helping to computerize that part of the business. Daughter Nadine keeps the books and runs the office. Son Richard “can put wood together better than I can.” But is he as good a story teller?