Nat Benjamin

Excerpted with permission from Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha's Vineyard, by Tom Dunlop.

By the time he was twenty-two, Nat Benjamin had skippered a charter boat in the Caribbean for a season, delivered boats half a dozen times between New England and the West Indies, sailed across the Mediterranean single-handed and the Atlantic with a crew. He grew up with an older sister and brother in Garrison, New York, a small town on the Hudson River. As a teenager, Nat was restless - something was always calling him away on adventures.

He took a break from high school to work on a ranch in Texas and never went back. While working as an underage bartender in Newport, Rhode Island, he was invited to help deliver a thirty-two-foot sloop to St. Thomas. That trip, in the fall of1967, set the course for the rest of Nat’s sailing, designing, and boatbuilding life.

The following year, an owner in Long Island hired Nat to sail Tappan Zee, a wooden thirty-eight-foot schooner, from Malta to Newport. The odyssey took more than a year. Tempests blew out her sails. Stress opened up seams in her hull. Her rigging let go. But as Nat sailed to Cueta, Spanish Morocco, and Casablanca for repairs, he discovered small, old-fashioned boatyards where sailors could work with skilled shipwrights and simple tools to get their boats going again.

“I liked the atmosphere, I liked the work,” says Nat. “I could see the skills - lost skills, a lot of them. I knew that the chartering business was a good way to make pretty easy money. But I preferred this kind of work, and this kind of lifestyle, at those boatyards."

And once she was properly refit, Tappan Zee proved to be a splendid sea boat, like many of the other wooden boats Nat had sailed on open-water passages in his youthful career. Wooden boats were fun to work on and, if well thought out, saw you safely home like nothing else on the water. Why, Nat wondered, would anyone ever want anything less?

In the summer of1972, he sailed into Vineyard Haven with his wife Pam, whom he’d met in the Caribbean, and daughter, Jessica, a toddler. The Benjamins were looking for charter work and a place to settle as a young family. They soon found a home near Vineyard Haven Harbor and in 1973 they had a second daughter, Signe, born at home. (Today Nat and Pam have five grandchildren.) At the house Nat set up a boat shop, and owners began to queue up with old sloops and catboats that needed repair. Nat began building dinghies and dories of his own, and he also started sketching larger traditional boats with an idea that here, in this harbor, he might one day soon get the chance to build them.

“For almost everything," he said in a 1977 interview, “there’s usually a new and an old way to do things. And I've found it is cheaper, better and more fulfilling to do it with wood - the old way."