- by Carol Standish
For a man whose recreation of choice is hiking in the hills, author Douglas Whynott has a pretty refined eye and a tactile appreciation for the lines of a beautiful boat. He also has a keen ear for a well-turned phrase. "Inside the sheds the boats are getting packed in tightly, the tapered bodies side by side, these visible manifestations of the aspiring mind." Whynott's new book, A Unit of Water a Unit of Time - Joel White's Last Boat (Doubleday; 300pp;$23.95) is a rich marriage between the unique talent of this writer and the intricacy of his subject.
Whynott's research technique was to visit Joel White's boat yard in Brooklin, Maine as often as he could over the course of a full year, hang out, watch, listen, occasionally inquire, and take voluminous notes. This approach enabled the author to produce highly authentic dialog and vivid scenes of the ongoing work on numerous boats. The use of the first person, present tense for most of the day to day activity adds to the immediacy of the experience, getting the reader right under the boat with a face full of sanding dust, behind the planer or inside the glue suit. (Today the Brooklin Boat Yard primarily uses the cold molding building method.) Work in the yard is dirty, arduous and exacting. Whynott's descriptions make you know it. The craftsmen know it, too, but there's value to the hand-wrought piece, says one of the crew, working to shape an "eye-sweet curve" to within a sixteenth with a hand planer, "it requires someone who cares."
The book reports on the activity at the boat yard between June of 1996 and July, 1997 but it is much more than a simple chronological narrative. Joel White was the son of E. B. White—author of classic children's books (Charlotte's Web, for instance) and many dry and pithy essays for the New Yorker and other national publications. E.B. and Katherine White moved to Brooklin in the '30s and Joel attended the local grammar school. In the first chapter, "Launchings" the author deftly weaves the writings of the elder White into the activities of the boat yard, gently revealing the rich, watery childhood of Joel White and some the reasons he became a premier designer and builder of classic watercraft.
A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time is also an unintentional elegy. The week White and the author met for the first time, White had been diagnosed with cancer. His doctor had told him he was in the clear but over the course of the year of the book White endured all the nightmares of cancer treatment as well as hip replacement surgery with quiet optimism. When he wasn't undergoing "procedures" he was at the shop. He even showed the crew X-rays of his new hip, pointing out the "sheetrock screws" that were holding everything together. "He explained it just like any other repair job." (Joel White died in December of 1997.)
While focusing on Joel White and the Brooklin Boat Yard, Whynott also includes many colorful stories from the men who work for and beside Joel—in an around Brooklin. Among the most charming are encounters with native Mainers who are third and fourth generation wooden boat builders. Arno Day "teaches a lot of things indirectly, and while he's teaching boatbuilding, he's teaching a way of life, too." There is a quiet but complex pedigree carried by all these craftsmen regarding their training—who learned what with whom—of which they are all aware.
Within that exclusive culture which still depends heavily on the apprenticeship system, older boatbuilders teaching younger ones, Joel White was the master—"a very special, warm, quiet, caring man," says Whynott, "and very private." Although the author "wasn't ever sure he [Joel] liked being written about," A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time captures the subtleties of the scene with the same care and craftsmanship that his subjects apply to boatbuilding.