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.”
Box and his family moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1980. After restoring a 48-foot English Channel pilot cutter on the island, he says he became burned out and ceased work as a boatbuilder. After years spent building homes, he began collecting driftwood from the long, lonely beaches, which he crafted into high-end furniture. The business was successful and internationally recognized (one of his pieces found its way into the hands of the Clintons). But for Box there was a lack of fulfillment—a missing connection with the sea, with boats, and with his former life.
In 2009, Box and his son Jake were driving across the bridge between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs. It was a fine day, and the two were presented with a postcard-perfect view of the life they left behind: A liquid New England canvas dotted with fishing boats and men scalloping in the water. Jake, who had followed his father’s example and became a vegetarian as a teenager, made a discontented comment upon viewing the scene. “He said, ‘I want to be out there doing that. Those are free men,’” Box says. “But he was preaching to the choir. I knew exactly what he was talking about.”
While neither had a desire to become a fisherman or otherwise give up the principles of their lifestyle, they vowed to get back on the water. Slowly, a big idea formed that would change both men’s lives.
Back in the late 1960s, Box was contracted by the government to rebuild some old wooden minesweeping boats for the military. While conducting related boat-design research, he discovered designs for a 37-foot Gulf Coast scow schooner, a boat that was “improved upon to the point where it can no longer be improved,” he says. “She had sweet lines, plus she was seaworthy.” Sailing scows were wide-bodied, barge-like cargo boats that were fixtures on the waters off the coastline more than a century ago, before the advent of internal-combustion engines. Because they lack a keel, they can be sailed onto a beach and offloaded—no deepwater docks required.
Box soon began envisioning a pathway back to the water for himself, his now 37-year-old son, and other likeminded souls: By building Seeker, a working Gulf Coast scow schooner. He imagined a vessel that would do freight work, like hauling firewood from the Vineyard to Nantucket. But once on the water, the boat could also serve a variety of other purposes in the community, such as functioning as a floating art gallery. “So many [boat-building] projects are just for show,” says Box. “Not this one. It will need to come in on or under budget, and it will have to earn its living.”
Box formed a mastermind advisory group, which includes friends like the 96-year-old Santos, famed Vineyard boatbuilders Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin, Captain Robert Douglas, and renowned yacht designer Dick Newick, among others. He then teamed up with Vineyard Voyagers, an existing organization that serves as Seeker’s nonprofit arm, helping to secure funding for a project that will in turn create local jobs, both during her construction and during her career as a working schooner.
After refining his design and drawing in the entire community—from school groups to artists to volunteers—Box then made arrangements to build Seeker in Vineyard Haven’s Boch Park, right near Douglas’ Black Dog Tavern and Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, one of the precious last bastions of wooden boats.
Work on Seeker got underway in August 2011. Box, Jake, and company started by building a barn, under whose protective timbers Seeker came to life. The first step was to lay her keel, then attach her frames, planks, and deck. “All materials will be green as sea grass,” says Box of the old-growth timbers that he’s using for this traditional plank-on-frame build: white oak for the keel and frames; white pine for the deck, masts, and spars; and cyprus for the planking. These logs came from private caches, like homeowners who need trees removed, and from discreetly gathered dead trees, not clear-cut. Box hopes to complete Seeker’s interior, finish trim work, and launch by May 2013.
Seeker’s place in the community is being established with each smack of a hammer. For Box, an exciting part of this project is the opportunity to mentor young people, from the proverbial square pegs struggling to fit into round holes to the computer geek who builds a website chronicling Seeker’s construction for class, from the history buff who watches a bygone slice of Americana being crafted to the wandering soul who happens upon the job site. The construction of Seeker has helped expose a new audience to a way of life that has fallen through the cracks. And Seeker will keep giving back to its community, long after the hammers fall silent in Boch Park.
David Schmidt, a former New Englander, is the U.S. editor of Sail-World.com and is an editor-at-large for SAIL magazine.