A Downeast passion for wooden boats

As a young child, I was enamored with tall trees and I guess today I still am. Whether one tree stands by itself or is one of thousands, trees are special, because as I breathe, they do too.

The ocean also mesmerizes me. The waves roll in and out and depending on the mood of the day, either sound off in a quiet murmur or a mighty roar. Whichever it be, the certainty of the waves coming and going is a constant and one I look forward to each and every day.

Then there are boats, the perfect mix of wood and water. The next best thing to seeing the blue of the ocean here in Maine is seeing it dotted with boats moving out beyond the reach, towards the islands and the horizon in search of their catch. It simply does not get any better than that.

For me, boats on the sea are a puzzle of wood and water. The sea is the board and the boats are the pieces of the puzzle that bring it all together and make it work. In those long ago distant days, wood was the primary, actually the only building material for the hulls of boats, ships and just about anything that was of purpose and service to those using it.

Today, fiberglass and other composite materials are used to form and shape the hulls of today’s boats in an effort to gain efficiencies in speed, safety and endurance. Requiring less day-to-day maintenance, the new materials provide another option for those seeking to push the envelope in both performance and risk when plying their trade on the open water. But just as the vinyl LP has made a surprising comeback to audiophiles, so too, has wood returned to the purist of sailors seeking to skim blue waters on a breath of wind and do so in a wooden boat.

My hope is that this return to yesterday’s materials continues in some way. I believe the more wood used on a boat the closer one gets to being a part of it, or even part of what it used to be. Crazy? Boats may never entirely be made of wood as their ancestors were, but I am hopeful the compromise between wood and modern materials continues to develop with the desire for more wood in the build winning out. In the end, whatever material is chosen, one thing will remain a constant: a boat sitting on water is a beautiful sight to behold.

Where I am from in Pennsylvania, the tractor-trailers are the boats of the highway. They are a constant on Interstates 80 and 95 and along the Lehigh and Delaware rivers where I grew up. With names such as Peterbuilt, Kenworth and, of course, Mack Trucks, they cannot be missed. They also, without question, seem to multiply within an hour of me driving the highways, causing choice words to flow when getting too close, which often they do. But it is what it is, and with highways forever seeming to multiply, they are here, and will be for a very long time.

Today, I am now living on the coast of Maine and boats are the movers of freight and men. They too, have names, but that will have to wait for another day, though I will say, the name of a boat is a task not taken lightly by any fisherman.

From Bucks Harbor to Cutler, Jonesport to Roque Bluffs, Eastport and beyond, boats can be seen each and everyday. Not only do the boats look good, but they also provide the fisherman with a dependable ride whenever he or she steps aboard. Imagine this picture: boats sitting in a protected harbor, first rays of morning sun gently touching their bows, mooring lines dripping with condensation as fog slips in to say “good morning,” gently touching the stern, as men and boys on deck make ready for a day of hard work. That picture, viewed with the first sip of coffee, always brings a smile.

I think often, of when that very first Downeast fisherman saw his boat for the first time. He stood there and admired the beauty of its sleek lines. It was a boat made of wood and it was named for something or someone he loved very much. It rocked back and forth as if to say hello. Over his shoulder, unknown to him, the trees stretched tall trying to catch a glimpse of this craft of wood, this vessel made of sweat and tears, to see one of their own transformed into something with purpose, something of beauty, with a name that reminds the captain every time he steps aboard of what life is really all about.

Wooden row boat made for RJ Heller by Cottrell Boat Builders in Searsport, Maine


Looking for more?

Get notified whenever I post a new Life Downeast piece, book review, or other item at BDN by entering your email address and clicking “subscribe” below. Keep up on all the BDN Maine blogs by liking BDN Maine Blogs on Facebook and follow @BDNMaineBlogs on Twitter. Seriously, do it. What are you waiting for?

Feel free to email me at rhellerwriter@gmail.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or post your thoughts below. Also, like the new Life Downeast page on Facebook.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.