What is it like to be among boats during the process of their birth? To walk upon the wood shavings, to work with hand tools along-side mentors of an old craft, to become one with the wood, glass and other materials that give life to an idea, to a design, is a dream realized by John Holt Willey and splendidly detailed in his book, A Winter Apprentice.
For Willey, a chance stop in 1978 at a small boatyard in East Boothbay, Maine in search of a job would provide the backdrop and ignite the passion again, of working with wood and learning a new craft. It would become a dream realized, and if only experienced for a brief 16 months, provide the lessons and stories, as Willey explains, that are at the very heart of this book. “The time and events described here are unique —to me at least—in one respect. I have yet to find another such journal written by a workman who labored by the clock, within such a yard, for a paycheck, at some work he or she came to love.”
Having grown up in Good Will Farm (now Good Will-Hinckley, Maine), just north of Waterville and a stones throw from the Kennebec River, Willey discovered the art of boat building. He and a friend in the early 1950s, both seventeen and bored with nothing to do one day, decided to fashion a pair of boats using barn boards they salvaged from the sawmill. The boats would eventually disappear as things often do, but the passion for working with wood would last a lifetime.
Now living in Belgrade, Maine, Willey spent 16 years as a reporter and private investigator living in San Francisco with his wife Barbara. Leaving in 1975, they headed to Iowa, spending time with his wife’s family while he made a feeble attempt at crafting a detective novel. Returning home to Maine, Willey found employment with a window factory and in the process taught himself the art of joinery. In 1978, with little in the way of work, he took a drive to the coast, finding his way to Boothbay Harbor and to a job that would become the essence of this book. “For most, a church is a structure set aside for common or group worship. For me a church is any place careful, thoughtful and life-affirming work is done. Among such workplaces, a boat- or shipyard has to be both life-affirming and life-preserving, and at its heart is the joiner shop, the holy of holies,” Willey says.
The stories told are of those experienced as a joiner on a crew, working together in the build of a 65-foot sailboat named Wandelaar. Tales of intricate wooden parts being crafted, tedious installations, cramped work spaces, all under the ever present eye of the shop foreman are told in sparse language seemingly covered in wood shavings and dust.
For anyone who has driven the back roads of Maine, past boatyards sprawling with boats of every size, and wondered what it is like to work in a place such as this, A Winter Apprenticeis a must have book. As the historian and avid boat builder John Gardner confirms, until relatively recently, boatbuilding was not recorded, especially the life of the yard crew. “Here is a rare and vibrant narrative from a winter apprentice,” Gardner said. As I sense the need to brush off the wood chips from my sweater while finishing this book, I could not agree more.
Polar Bear & Company, 2016 Softcover, $14.95