Ross Gannon

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

From the age of three, Ross Gannon was taking things apart and putting them back together - radios, alarm clocks, whatever gizmos his parents gave him to work on. His father was an executive for merchandising at General Foods, and after moving around the country a bit, Ross settled with his parents and older brother and sister in Darien, Connecticut. When he was in seventh grade, he began to work summers at the Noroton Yacht Club. Under the direction of Charlie Potter, a math teacher who also supervised the maintenance of everything the club owned ashore and afloat, Ross began to find his way toward a career as an engineer and builder on land and water.

“What he did for us boys is, he let us do things that were so beyond our abilities,” says Ross of his mentor. “He would just turn us loose. We built all the floats, we built all the ramps, we replaced the deck on one of the launches one spring. We were teenage boys! Even if you botch it, you’re having a ball. Doing it until it comes out right- I found that just fabulous. I gained a lot of confidence from working for Charlie Potter.”

Ross earned a degree in engineering from North Carolina State University. He moved to the Vineyard, which he’d visited a few times, in 1969, after working for a company that trained dogs to look for land mines in Vietnam. On the Island, working his way up from smaller contracting jobs, he started moving and building houses, often using timbers salvaged from larger buildings he was being hired at the same time to demolish. He wanted to get back to the waterfront and repairing boats, though. “I thought in college or thereabouts how nice it would be to have a little boatyard,” he says. “At the time I wasn't envisioning building boats. It would have been too far of a reach for me to imagine that. It was only at thirty or so that I thought, ‘You know, I think I can do that."’

He bought two old wooden boats, both day sailers native to the Vineyard, and began to teach himself how to repair them. His goal was to move up to a boat he could live on. He found her in Urchin, the Casey cutter he hauled on the beach in the summer of 1978 and went to Nat Benjamin to ask for advice about replacing her frames. Two years later, the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway was under way.

Ross has a son, Lyle, from a previous relationship, and twins Olin and Greta with his wife Kirsten Scott, to whom he proposed during the Rebecca project. At the boatyard, he long ago realized that he and Nat are ideally suited to building traditional boats together:

“My background is an engineering background, and I always approach things first with how to build it structurally, then how to do the rest of it - how to make it look pretty, how small you can make something and still have enough strength. And I think Nat starts with how he wants it to look and works the other way. So it’s a wonderful combination. What we learn from one another, we take to the next job."