Harry Bryan working on his 20′ Gaff Sloop Katie in Passamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick. Harry is a boatbuilder, designer, frequent contributor to Wooden Boat magazine as well as an instructor at the Wooden Boat School. Harry designed and built Katie for his family in 2008 using locally grown Cedar. Photos by Bryan Gagner
On the Water and Off the Grid
THE STORY OF HARRY BRYAN BOATBUILDING – BY JEFF RYAN
In 1976, Harry Bryan set his sights on a piece of oceanfront property in New Brunswick that would be the perfect setting for him to fulfill a lifelong dream — opening and operating his own boat building business.
As dreams go, this was no passing fancy. The path that led here began hundreds of miles and more than two decades away.
“I was never much for school the way it was when I was growing up”, says Harry. “Having to memorize things didn’t suit me at all, as my teachers and parents could attest. I was more interested in taking things apart and putting them back together again.”
Private school wasn’t the solution either. It was just a higher priced exercise in frustration for all involved. It was pretty clear that Harry was destined to work with his hands. And building boats soon became his calling.
He worked with a few boatbuilders — long enough to develop a sense of what worked and what didn’t—developed a reverence for classic designs and hand tools, then set out to find a peaceful cove to raise his family and ply his trade.
He and his wife Martha explored the Maine coast extensively, looking for the perfect parcel. The ones they did find either weren’t quite right or too expensive. “Even then, there was a land boom going on,” explains Harry. “We just kept going downeast until we found the right place. It happened to be in New Brunswick.”
Setting up shop no small task
Like most projects Harry takes on, getting his business up and running was well planned and achieved in due time. This was as far away from “plug and play” as you could get. First off, was designing and building the shop itself. Like the boats he was to build, Harry wanted his work space to be classically designed and compact. “A place for everything and everything within easy reach” became his guiding principle.
As far as powering his shop, that piece was easy. Harry’s philosophy is to use hand tools as much as possible and power as little as possible. He’s come up with some pretty ingenious ways to do this.
For one, he has a hand-powered drill press. “It’s the only one I used for quite a while, and right next to it is a 12” band saw that I converted to treadle power. It’s got an added advantage. I don’t need a gym membership.” he says with a chuckle. There’s also a treadle-powered grinder and an old table saw that he powered down to work off the grid (when I called Harry to interview him, he was shoveling snow off the solar panels.)
Harry’s tools are works of art in and of themselves. His metal lathe is the same model Orville Wright used to make bicycle parts at the turn of the 20th century. His band saw is even older, (dating from the late 1800s) and has wooden wheels.
This assemblage of tools would be the envy of any collector. Just don’t count Harry among them. “I don’t think of myself as a collector”, he says. “I acquire tools to use them. Of course I admire the ingenuity and craftsmanship that went into them. But, I’m really more interested in the quality of the work I can produce from them.”
Then there are his hand tools.
Very early on in his boatbuilding career, Harry realized that high quality hand tools were disappearing. “You can’t walk into a hardware store today expecting to buy decent hand tools. They practically don’t exist. Everything has been cheapened by degrees. So, a woodworker that wants quality tools really has just a few choices: go hunting around at antique shops or estate sales or purchase them from one of the few companies that still make them. When you buy one of these new quality tools you are paying a worker who is proud of the work he does and cares about the work that you do. That is worth a great deal”, says Harry.
Time for Adventure
It is tempting to compare the life of Harry Bryan with that of Henry Thoreau. There are certainly enough parallels to back it up — building a cabin off the beaten path, honoring the ways of his predecessors and living a life designed to impact his surroundings as little as possible all come to mind. Then there are the journeys away from home.
Like Thoreau, whose sojourns took him from the beaches of Cape Cod to Maine’s Katahdin, Harry has a yen for adventure. In 1988, he and Martha set sail in a 36’ sailboat Harry built that was inspired by a circa 1912 William Hand design. Over the next four years, they traced a giant figure 8 with stops in the Bahamas, many Pacific islands, Tasmania and New Zealand.
“We originally planned on sailing all the way around the world,” says Harry with some amusement, “but my wife wanted to visit with some friends in San Francisco on the way home, so we went back the way we came.”
Time to Scale Down
Not surprisingly, when the Bryans got back to New Brunswick, they sold the 36-footer. Keeping a big boat up to snuff was too labor intensive. Harry started puttering around with a design just half it’s size.
“I thought that after four years on a boat, that Martha wouldn’t want me to build anything with sleeping quarters on it. So I started playing around with a variant of a 12’ gaff rigged Herreshoff. Much to my surprise, Martha said, ‘Why not make it an overnighter?’ I added two feet to the design and two berths below. Thus, the Katie was born.”
The Katie is amazingly versatile, which is just what the New Brunswick coast calls for. It has a nice, shallow draft and a ballast keel with a centerboard for nosing into coves near low tide, yet is stable enough for occasional distance cruising, which is about as often as the couple can get away these days.
And the Katie scoots right along. “We launched her on a flat calm day in late July of 2008, and it sailed along quite nicely. I couldn’t be happier with it”, says the builder. Given that he’s not one for hyperbole, we can only assume that the Katie handles as beautifully as she looks.
- LOD 20′
- Beam 7′
- Draft 20″ (3’8″)
- Displacement 2400 Ibs.
- Sail area 261 sq. ft.
Construction: round bottom, carvel cedar over oak
Intended capacity: 2 to 6 adults daysailing
Propulsion: optional electric outboard motor
Update: These days, Harry is still busy in the shop (he’s currently working on a 26’ V-shaped power boat – the largest power boat he’s undertaken), but he’s trying to ease off the throttle a bit. It’s hard to imagine him not puttering around in the shop, restoring a boat or teaching his grandkids how to use hand tools.
Editor’s note: You may have seen pictures of Katie before. She was featured on the cover of the 2010 Calendar of Wooden Boats and the Spring 2014 Jamestown Distributors catalog.