Extended Synopsis

CHARLOTTE is a film about an extraordinary boatyard, the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, located on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.   Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin established the boatyard in 1980 with the purpose of designing, building, restoring, and maintaining traditionally built wooden boats.  Over the ensuing decades Ross and Nat have played an essential role in preserving and extending the art and craft of wooden boat building.

Nat and Ross employ traditional boatbuilding techniques because they feel that this is the best way to produce boats that are simple, beautiful, robust, and a pleasure to sail; they employ modern techniques, materials and technology in the (limited) circumstances that it improves the boat.   Their work is informed by close examination of the great yacht designers of the past — first and foremost Herreshoff, Alden, Sparkman & Stephens— but the vast majority of the boats they have produced are based on Nat’s original designs.  This combination of tradition, innovation and originality has made the boatyard a mecca for wooden boat owners and enthusiasts from the world over, and has transformed Vineyard Haven harbor into a showplace for a vast array of gorgeous wooden boats.

The film begins as Nat embarks on building a 50 foot gaff-rigged Schooner for use by his family and friends — her name is Charlotte.  It is the dead of winter, a blizzard envelopes the Boatyard, and Nat is working alone in an improvised and unheated “workshop.”  He is installing floors on a massive keeli timber that sits atop a salvaged 8 ton ballast.  Charlotte is being built from Nat’s original design, using traditional planki-on-framei, all wood construction.  In a way he has been preparing to make this boat his entire adult life, accumulating the experience, know-how, and resources that would allow him to construct the boat of his dreams.

The plan for the boat is reflected in a simple set of line drawings.  The drawings provide a general sense of how the hull is shaped and the boat rigged, but little guidance about how it will be built.  Drawing on his practical judgment and a profound knowledge of traditional building techniques, Nat works directly on the boat as well as communicating the details of the construction to the ever-changing collection of volunteers, apprentices, and a precious few Boatwrights who work on the project over the years.  Every piece of wood on Charlotte is unique, it is carefully selected in terms of species, grain structure, size, defects, and is shaped through hand work and basic woodworking machines guiding in every instance by the judgment of the craftsperson carrying out the work.  Most of the metal fittings for the rig are designed by Nat and his rigger and custom fabricated.  There are precious few manufactured items integrated into the boat — the winches, compass, navigation and communication systems, etc. — and many of those were salvaged from preexisting vessels.

While Charlotte is being built, the boatyard goes about its usual business of repairing and building boats for their clients.  Summer begins with readying a large portion of the Vineyard Haven fleet of wooden boats for the sailing season — bright work is sanded and refinished, winches are lubricated, systems are checked, the boats are rigged, etc.  The flurry of activity gives way to the more deliberate pace of summer, when they continue to work on new boats and undertake restoration projects.  Launches punctuate the regular pace of work: the staff organizes the yard, boats are “rolled” onto the marine railway, and a hundred or more friends and family of the boat’s owner as well as supporters of the boatyard, come to celebrate the occasion.  During the fall boats are prepared for the coming winter — taking a wooden boat out of the water leads to wood shrinking that can be detrimental to the boat, so by and large the boats are left in the water over winter thus must be prepared to face the harsh conditions. In the fall boats are prepared to face the harsh conditions of winter.  Year in and year out the cycle continues, work is done according to what the seasons necessitate and what the weather will allow.

Nat is kept quite busy by his responsibilities to the boatyard and thus can only work on Charlotte intermittently.  The process of building Charlotte is slow and careful, but satisfyingly cumulative.  In the first year the boat is lofted, the keeli is laid, and the floors are installed.  In the second year the sawn frames are installed and the boat is planked.  Once the boat is “shuttered up” the pace accelerates, due in large part to two Boatwrights who begin to systematically work through the myriad details that go into completing a large wooden boat.  In due course the hull is faired and caulked, the engine and mechanical systems are installed, the doghouses, decking, and rigging are completed, and the interior is fitted out. The process is cooperative and artisanal, bearing no resemblance to modern manufacturing.

While Charlotte is under construction the boatyard completes work on the 38’ Sloop Here and Now, the motor yachts Ilona and Alliance, the 26’ sloop Advent (after  Herreshoff’s Alerion), as well as a half dozen smaller boats and countless repair jobs.  After decades of preparation, and three and a half years of construction, Charlotte is moved from the shed.  Once she is out we share Nat’s obvious pleasure in seeing the beauty of her lines for the first time.  The launch of Charlotte is the climax of the film.  Hundreds of people turn out, some traveling thousands of miles to attend the event — many have no direct relationship to the boatyard, they have come to support its work and celebrate the enduring tradition of wooden boatbuilding. 

Charlotte’s homeport is Vineyard Haven Harbor, where she joins a fleet of other Gannon & Benjamin boats; the family resemblance to her cousins is unmistakable and gratifying to behold.  Under sail, Charlotte comes into her own: she cuts a beautiful line through the water, and when her sails fill with a stiff breeze she pulls forward, fully alive, eager to bring her crew wherever she might be steered.  Besides day trips around Vineyard Sound, she has already travelled from the Caribbean up through Maine, and I suspect that in her long life she will eventually sail all of the oceans of the world.

The film portrays the everyday activities in and around the boatyard.  From the selection, cutting, planing, and fairing of massive timbers, to the sanding and varnishing of bright work, to visits by friends and family, the ritual of “coffee time”, festive launches, and sailing.   Much of the work is mundane, repetitive, and confusing to the uninitiated, while other work demonstrates moments of singularly inspired craftsmanship and ingenuity.  The visits and breaks might appear as distractions from work but, in fact, they are evidence of the social context that make the work possible.  Those who work at the boatyard are bound together in mutual support, friendship, and shared mission; the friends, family, enthusiasts, and clients who drop by sustain the boatyard, materially and spiritually.

The film is structured around a simple plot line:  the design, construction, and launch of Charlotte.   However, narrative structure is deemphasized as the film seeks to provide the viewer with carefully constructed succession of observations, allowing the boat building process to speak for itself, showing rather than explaining, much in the way that knowledge of boatbuilding is passed from master to apprentice.   The film is a character study of the processes, people, and the boats themselves, but ultimately what emerges is best characterized of as a meditation on tradition, craftsmanship, family, community, our relationship to nature, and the love of the sea.