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November 7, 2012

Grant Affirms Apprenticeship in Wooden Boatbuilding

by Laurie Schreiber

High school sophomore, Ryan Snow, apprentices with life-long boatbuilder Richard Stanley.
High school sophomore, Ryan Snow, apprentices with life-long boatbuilder Richard Stanley. Photo: Laurie Schreiber

 At Great Harbor Boatworks in Southwest Harbor, Richard Stanley and his apprentice, Ryan Snow, are standing in back of a half-built, 19-foot daysailer.

Stanley hunches forward, one eye closed, observing the alignment of a plumb bob.

He steps aside and tells Snow to observe how the bob hangs.

“You keep sighting it,” Stanley says. “The problem is, there’s more board on this side than that side. Center it up here. You see that?”

The two shift their attention to the bow and pull out a laser level. The job today is to brace up the hull. They hunt for scrap lumber for the braces. Snow carefully uses the bandsaw to shave an inch or two from a two-by-four.

The 19-footer has come along quite a bit since Snow began his apprenticeship with Stanley, two years previously. Now he’s a high school sophomore and studies Stanley’s moves. And that’s just what Stanley did when he was a kid, learning the art and craft of wooden boatbuilding from some of Mount Desert Island’s top practitioners.

Today, Stanley has become something of a standard-bearer for wooden boatbuilding, through the business he owns with his wife, Lorraine.

And his desire to pass along his skills to apprentices has been affirmed, over the past two years, by two grants from the Maine Arts Commission. In 2011, he was awarded $13,000 in the individual artist fellowship program. Shortly thereafter, his yard received a visit from Governor and First Lady Paul and Ann LePage, at the end of which the governor humorously offered to sign on as Stanley’s apprentice once his term was done.

This year, Stanley was awarded a grant of $4,000 in the traditional apprenticeship category.

These distinctions come at a difficult time for the boatbuilding industry in general, as builders of pleasure boats strive to maintain and build new markets while the economy continues to founder. In an industry that has turned mainly to fiberglass and composites, such recognition signals the value of Stanley’s heritage.

Now, the yard is waiting out the “great recession,” with storage and rebuilding projects that pay the bills. But Stanley’s real goal is to get back to building boats—something small, no more than 30 feet long, a simple design, inviting to the average boater, pleasing to the eye.

“That’s where my passion is,” he says. “Designing and building boats. It’s the artist in me.”

At 50, he is a tall man with a gruff voice that fetches up deep in his throat. His gait is stiff and he has a preoccupied look. All traits give the initial impression that he’s taciturn. He’s not. He’s a sweet guy and a great storyteller. He inherited his passion for wooden boats from his father, Ralph Stanley, a National Heritage Fellow and Boatbuilder Laureate of Maine.

“When I was a little kid, I just wanted to be with my father all the time, and I wanted to be a boatbuilder. That’s all I wanted to do,” Richard says.

From a young age, he was at his father’s shop, happy to scrub bottoms, sweep up shavings, grease the ways.

“I’d be up there as often as I could, pretty much every day,” he says.

He jumped at the chance to go with his father to other boatyards.

“I got to go to Jimmy Rich’s,” he recalls. “They were building a powerboat over there one time, and they had just got the rabbet all cut and chiseled out. And they were sandpapering it! They were sandpapering a rabbet! And I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before!’ That’s how fussy Jimmy Rich was about building boats.”

At a nearby machine shop, Stanley remembers “great big lathes and milling machines and all this junk everywhere, and just a little path through there and a little area to work at the machine. Otherwise it was just stacked with metal junk. You’d go in there and ask Father Power for something, and Father Power would go to his junk, and he knew right where everything was.”

He visited Raymond Bunker, at the Bunker and Ellis shop in Manset. He remembers the “Richtown rollers”—the narrow, full-bottomed boats that rolled quite a bit—made by “old Eulie and Frank Rich.” He was one of the privileged people allowed to be in Ronald Rich’s shop. There was Hinckley, Farnham Butler, Bobby Rich, the Southwest Boat Corporation and others.

In 1982, he graduated from The Boat School in Eastport. In 1983, he began to receive a name credit at his father’s shop. In 1986, he acquired a quarter interest in his father’s business.

As Richard and Lorraine explored the possibility of taking over the business, it became clear that the purchase would mean selling the Ralph W. Stanley, Inc., shop, moving operations, and changing the business name to reposition Richard as the head of the firm. Under the old Ralph W. Stanley name, people called up expecting to speak with Ralph.

Existing storage customers remained with Great Harbor Boatworks, and the business has been sustained by Stanley’s longstanding rapport with existing owners.

Now, Stanley says, he is thrilled to find that there are kids today who want to learn from him. In recent weeks, he’s been teaching Snow how to cut and fit the floor timbers and the deck frame.

“That’s what I hope to find more of in the future, local kids who would like to learn,” he says. “It makes me really happy.”

Laurie Schreiber is a freelance contributor living in Bass Harbor.

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