Seeking Something Long Forgotten
In building a schooner, an island boatbuilder rediscovers his past.
There is a hand-hewn knowledge of the shipbuilding that has been intrinsic to a particular way of life in New England. For Ted Box, a renowned environmental artist, waterman, and master boatbuilder who has called Vineyard Haven home for more than 30 years, that way of life once proved at odds with who he wanted to be. But after abandoning his craft for years, he recently decided to turn his focus back to the water by building Seeker, a Gulf Coast scow schooner whose construction has attracted a community’s worth of attention.
Box, 67, grew up in Seaford, Long Island, a small fishing village that lost its bearings just as he was looking to join the working waterfront. Seeing the life he envisioned—of boats, of fishing, and of building the noble craft that men stake their lives on—evaporate, Box eventually worked his way to Provincetown at age 19. In Provincetown, Box apprenticed under Francis “Flyer” Santos, the Cape Cod boatbuilder and mentor whom he credits with giving him a foundation in fashioning wooden boats.
Boats were the center of his existence. Together, Box, Flyer, and a few other builders serviced Provincetown’s 70-boat fleet, a job of considerable responsibility in a small fishing town. During his journeyman phase, Box would work in Provincetown from spring through fall before sailing or hitchhiking around the country to work under other boatbuilders. He saw evidence of a fading industry with every fiberglass hull he spotted on the water in the 1970s. When work in Provincetown was slow, he’d jump on boats and go commercial fishing—sometimes he lived on boats, too. “You might say I was homeless, but I didn’t look at it that way,” Box says. “I just felt that why should I waste my money paying rent when there was a beautiful sky out there?”
The years slipped happily astern before Box had a midlife epiphany. After catching his reflection in the eye of a whale cod he was cleaning, he embraced a path of nonviolence and a strict vegetarian diet. His convictions ran strong, so even though he deeply respected the fishermen with whom he worked, he felt morally obligated to leave every aspect of the fishing industry behind. “I couldn’t look the captains of these boats in the eye and tell them that I wouldn’t fix their boats,” Box says. “So I had to leave.”