For centuries, we relied on wooden boats for everything from travel and transportation, to fishing. But in the last half-century or so, wood has given way to metal and fiberglass, while factory assembly lines have replaced real, live craftspeople.
But if you look in the right places, you can still find a few folks that can handcraft a custom made wooden boat that will last for generations.
Growing up in San Francisco, Matt Hobart’s family owned a Crocker Cutter, so boating has been in his blood pretty much from the start. Later, when it came to choosing what he wanted to do professionally, Matt chose the ever-rare art of boatbuilding.
Matt was 24 when he moved to the famous island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts to begin learning the craft from two true masters — Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin.
Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway has been designing, building and repairing wooden boats since 1980. They’re well-known on the island, having built boats for celebrities, and sailed with presidents. And there was nobody better for Matt to study under.
Today, Matt spends most days working between two boatbuilding sheds run by Gannon & Benjamin in Vineyard Haven. The measuring, cutting, planing, drilling, and fastening — it’s all done with methods and tools that have been around for centuries. In fact, some of the tools still used here date back to the late 1800's.
Whether it’s restoring an old 1950s boat like this one, or building a brand new 3-man tender (a.k.a. “dinghy”), each boat is meticulously constructed by hand. It takes longer and costs a little more, but many customers wouldn’t want their boat built any other way.
Matt’s also working on a replica of a 1800s whaling boat, commissioned for display by the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.
Using quality woods is something Gannon & Benjamin insists on for their boats, but it isn’t always easy to get their hands on. It can sometimes take up to 2 years to acquire all the wood needed for a larger boat.
When they do get the wood they need, they make sure almost none of it goes to waste. The large pieces are used for planks, while the scraps are used for details. The really small pieces are then burned in their wood stoves (their only heat source during winter). Even the sawdust is given to local farmers for livestock bedding.
Being a full-time resident on an island like Martha’s Vineyard isn’t necessarily for everyone. But Matt and his wife have adapted to it easily. He doesn’t own a car, and commutes to work on an old bike that had been junked.
While the population on the island is around 15,000 for most of the year, it swells to over 100,000 people once summer comes. And when Matt needs a little break from the crowd, he knows how to find a little solitude.
When Matt’s not working on someone else’s boat, he’s often working on — or sailing on — his own.
Matt’s path certainly isn’t the most beaten one. He’s not a millionaire, and doesn’t live in a bustling city. But he does have pride in knowing he’s helping to carry on a tradition that’s lasted for centuries. And at the end of each day, the tangible results of his work are there for him to admire.