The smell is what I remember most about my first visit to the boatyard. The tide was out on the river that hot August night, and the fusty smell of mudflats blended with whiffs of turpentine and cut wood. My daughter and I had come to meet Harold Burnham, the shipwright and owner, to talk about the possibility of photographing the construction of his new schooner.
Harold started his boatbuilding business in 1995 on the same land used by five generations of Burnhams. A master shipwright, he builds boats using the traditional methods of his ancestors, shipwrights since 1819. He’s an eleventh-generation boat-builder and the 28th Burnham to operate a boatyard in Essex. As the story goes, around 1650 the first boat was built in Essex by a man named Thomas Burnham. He built the boat inside his house and had to tear a wall out in the spring to get the boat to the river. Harold wouldn’t be tearing out any of the walls in his house. His boat would come together outside, open to the weather, and if inside work needed to be done, he’d use the barn his great-great-grandfather Oliver originally built.
Entering the boatyard we could make out a number of structures including a house at the top of the rise and the barn below. We headed for the barn, largest of the buildings and closest to the water’s edge. It was dark with little lighting and as we made our way down we navigated many obstacles: coils of rope, chain, stacks of wood, a couple of old boats on jack-stands, and a strange gangway that ran past the building and down toward the river. Inside, we saw the barn was expansive high-ceilinged and open, with a workbench running the length of one wall and a large collection of half models on the other. The interior was illuminated by two small lights and we could just make out an old dory hanging from the rafters, hand tools scattered around, and heavily stained floorboards beneath our feet. Steep, tight stairs ran up one wall, capped by a hatch that led to the loft.
Entering the loft the sight left us speechless, a wood stove was attached to the ceiling by long metal rods, and every inch of space around the perimeter held an assortment of nautical odds and ends. A bench in the corner harbored what looked like plans or drawings, and the lines for the new boat had already been “lofted,” full scale on the floor. Scattered about were all sorts of tools: awls, long thin strips of wood, strange flexible measuring devices, odd shaped weights and an assortment of rules. A sewing machine sat off to one side, along with a band saw, bolts of sail cloth, a rocking chair and a couch. The loft had a very low ceiling but as I was to find out later, most real work in the loft happens on the floor.
It was here that we also found Harold. He was pondering an issue involving degrees of curvature for one of the lines. Looking over at us for a few seconds he paused, and in what I was to learn later, typical Harold fashion, he stared at us for a moment, then put his head back down and continued discussing the issue with the other two men in the room. They were throwing around words like “dead-rise” and “futtocks”, “fairings” and “offsets”, and other words I could only assume referred to more technical aspects of boatbuilding.
After about five minutes he looked up and said, “Hi I’m Harold,” and that was the beginning of a grand adventure and one of the most interesting years of my life.