Since 1980 the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway has become a cultural landmark for traditional wooden boat builders in the Northeast. Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon have designed and built more than 50 boats and sent them down this railway here on Martha’s Vineyard.
Shown here is the 46’ motorboat ‘Tracker’ built in 1946 by the Hodgdon Brothers in East Boothbay, Maine. She was the last boat designed and then owned by the great designer William Hand, Jr. The current owners Randy Jardin and John Murphy brought her into the Gannon and Benjamin shop in the spring of 2014. G&B replaced the transom and the aft deck. They also recalled a section of the bottom and replaced the propeller shaft. Once the woodwork was done they finished her up with a custom green color.
When we asked G&B for a little bit of the history of their Shop they graciously offered us the Afterward that Nat Benjamin wrote in 2010 for Tom Dunlop’s book “Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha’s Vineyard”.
“During the early 1970s, Martha’s Vineyard’s main port of entry consisted of a casual mixture of commercial and residential activity and a colorful group of sailing and boating enthusiasts. Unlike so many vacation destinations, Vineyard Haven Harbor, with its public park and affordable moorings, was accessible to the people of the town. Standing tall in the anchorage, the 108’ topsail schooner Shenandoah loomed over the fleet, her raking masts and sleek clipper hull a beacon of 19th century maritime authenticity. It was a laid back, understated, quaintly disorganized and pleasantly unpretentious place. Not a whole lot has changed since then – just more boats.
But something else was stirring in these waters. A handful of knowledgeable watermen and local citizens had serendipitously organized a seaport that encouraged a traditional working waterfront while the rest of America’s coastwise trades were being systematically dissolved and replaced with oversized, opulent developments pandering exclusively to corporate America at leisure. Thanks to these visionary individuals who fought to preserve the shipyards, docks, commerce and ecology, this year-round vitality continues to thrive today.
Ross and I quietly inquired in 1979 about setting up a wooden boat building and repair facility. For the most part, we were welcomed and encouraged. Concurrently, an Island-wide, nationally publicized groundswell of opposition to a proposed MacDonald’s hamburger franchise successfully thwarted the Golden Arches’ effort to establish a foothold on Martha’s Vineyard. We rode in on the victory slipstream, landing on the very beach where the fryolators were intended to envelop potatoes in hot grease.
Despite the questionable sanity of creating a 19th century wooden boat business as the rest of the world was rushing into the “no maintenance” mantra of the 21st, we ploughed ahead. The work was stimulating and challenging, and the hours were long. As we cultivated relationships with some of New England’s eclectic collection of deteriorating classic yachts and their often eccentric owners, a symbiosis evolved. We would provide them with a vessel that would stay afloat and they gave us much needed job security. We gained more skills and confidence and soon realized that the mystique associated with building new traditional yachts was mostly “myst”, so new custom designs and construction became a large part of our annual repertoire.
There were a few bumps in the road, as in any worthwhile endeavor, but jumping hurdles made us smarter and added a dash of humility to our disposition, which is always a good growth hormone.
By the time we closed in on our first decade in business, we had settled into a comfortable backlog of steady employment, a modest but predictable financial forecast, a company reputation beyond reproach and just possibly a hint of hubris within the deeper psyche.
The wake-up call came around midnight October 17, 1989, when the boatyard was engulfed in a blazing inferno, and everything we had worked so hard to achieve vanished before us in nature’s terrifying furnace. The devastation was numbing and the future full of doubt.
Returning, dazed, to the worksite the next morning, we were greeted by dozens of stunned but determined individuals, their bodies hunched over in blackened clothing, bare hands digging through the rubble for tools, hardware, personal belongings, anything salvageable. Although we were unaware of it at the time, this dismal grey morning was the beginning of a new wave of our waterfront enterprise. We had crossed the Rubicon of uncertainty and were now propelled forward by the energy and good will of the Island community and beyond. The message was clear — rebuild the boatyard and get back to work. This cathartic event sealed our connection with our Island as decisively as when a spectator resolves to become a player.
Building the schooner Rebecca was another transformative phase in our brief history on the waterfront. Initial machinations notwithstanding, the vessel was completed on budget and has brought great pleasure to her owners and to the numerous guests who have sailed aboard. The sixty-foot Rebecca was soon followed by the sixty-five foot schooner Juno. Keeping track of these grand vessels as they sail the world’s oceans is a source of great satisfaction. But the level of fulfillment is not a condition of the magnitude of the project but rather the nurturing of the soul. It is helping a grandson learn to row, guiding an apprentice spiling a plank, raising sail on a voyage outward bound, coaching a young sailor at the helm — enjoying the whole spectrum of life and witnessing beauty in a broken world.
We hope you feel both the joy and the beauty in the pages of this book.”