SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — A decades-old tradition came to an end Monday — a few inches at a time.
The last boat to be launched out of the Ralph W. Stanley Inc. shop on Clark Point Road moved down the old wooden ways Monday, the way it’s been done since Ralph Stanley opened the shop in 1973: with a good deal of elbow grease and some regular grease as well.
With ropes straining, the come-along ratcheting and the wooden cradle creaking along the wooden ways, the boat on the cradle reached the low-tide mud of the Southwest Harbor shore.
Fittingly, the boat being launched was a 40-foot Friendship sloop, the Westwind, which was rebuilt in the shop where the company has built and restored so many of the Friendship sloop design. The project has been directed by Ralph’s son Richard, 47, who has been running the shop since 1986.
Ralph Stanley, who is now 80 years old, has been less and less involved in the day-to-day operations at the shop and will sell his interest in the building to Richard. That sale is expected to take place in the next few days.
Although Ralph Stanley acknowledged it was sad to see the last boat go out of the shop, he was philosophical about it.
“It’s got to happen,” he said. “I can’t build any more, and the taxes are killing us.”
He said he planned to sell the property, including the house he has lived in, but hoped the sale would include a life tenancy provision that would allow him to continue to live there.
Over the years, Stanley and the shop have made a name for themselves.
Stanley has been recognized as one of Maine’s living legends for his lifelong work in wooden boat building and design, and in the 1990s he was honored at the White House as a “national treasure” by former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Former Maine Gov. Angus King also named Stanley a Maine Boat Builder Laureate by official proclamation.
When the USS Constitution — “Old Ironsides” — was preparing for its 200th anniversary, the crew from Ralph W. Stanley was called in to help determine if it was seaworthy. So Ralph, Richard and his brother-in-law, Tim Goodwin, went to Boston to conduct a survey of the old warship.
“I went all over that ship,” Richard Stanley said. “She was really in good shape. She could have sailed.”
They made some suggestions, although he said he didn’t know what the Navy did with the ship. It did sail again, he added.
Richard grew up around the boatyard in a village that at one time had as many as 14 or so wooden boat builders.
“Back then, you could watch them cut the front end off a sardine carrier; that was really something to watch,” he said. “You could learn quite a lot that way.”
He said he learned by watching his father and the crew at the boat shop. Ralph Stanley was never a teacher, he said.
“He expected you to know how he wanted it done,” he said. “You learn a lot that way, too.”
Richard began working full time at the boatyard after he graduated from the Boat School in 1982. He bought an interest in the business in 1986 and has been running the shop since then.
Richard and his wife, Lorraine, will run the boat shop from leased space in Manset for the time being, although he said he hopes to find land in Southwest Harbor where he can build a new shop.
They plan to continue the family-run business and to build wooden boats using traditional plank on frame techniques. Though he said he may build a few molds and have someone else lay them up with fiberglass to sell as kit boats, Richard Stanley said he doesn’t like to work in fiberglass.
“With fiberglass, you start with a mold and you build the same boat. You can trim it out to make it look different, but it’s the same boat,” he said. “With wood, even if you’re building the same boat, it’s not ever the same. I like to change things.”
Although he said he prefers to build new boats, rebuilds — like the Westwind launched Monday — can present challenges, almost too many challenges. The work on the Westwind, built in Friendship in 1902 by Charles Morse, was a complete rebuild to the demanding requirements to maintain its Class A original status. It was a major job that caused him a few moments of concern, he said.
“There were a few moments when I said, ‘I don’t know about this,’” he said.
But it turned out well in the end, although the boat is far from completed. The crew was waiting Monday morning for the tide to lift the sloop off the cradle. They will tow it to Manset and haul it out to the shop where they will continue to work on the exterior of the boat. Richard said he expects the owners, who purchased the boat 30 years ago, will want to finish the interior themselves.
Richard and Lorraine will take over Ralph W. Stanley Inc. at a time when the shaky economy has hit boat builders just as hard as it has other sectors. That’s caused some concern for both the elder and the younger Stanley.
Ralph Stanley is pleased to be turning the operation over to his son, but, he said, he worries some about the economy.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said, “but now I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. But I think there will always be somebody who wants a wooden boat.”
Richard Stanley, too, is concerned, but optimistic. The phone is ringing a little more and people are coming by a little more often.
“When they get to the price end of it, they disappear like ghosts,” he said. “But it’s been tight before. People will always want to have a boat. There’s a lot of water in this world, and a lot of people will want to have a custom boat, one that no one else has, that is just theirs. That’s what I try to give them.”
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY GABOR DEGRE
Ralph Stanley watches as the 40-foot Friendship sloop Westwind is lowered toward the water by his son Richard Stanley and Tim Goodwin on Monday. The boat, which was originally built by Charles Morse in 1902, was rebuilt at the Ralph W. Stanley Inc. boat shop in Southwest Harbor. This is the last boat to be refurbished, as the shop will be relocated to Manset.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY GABOR DEGRE
The 40-foot Friendship sloop Westwind is lowered toward the water by Richard Stanley (left) and Tim Goodwin (right) on Monday.