Ralph Stanley’s Last Boat

Posted Sept. 13, 2009, at 4:11 p.m.

Lovers of wooden boats are saddened to learn that at 80, Ralph W. Stanley has launched the last boat from the old boatyard on the Southwest Harbor waterfront. But cheer up: Ralph’s son Richard, who has been running the business since 1998, now owns it with his wife, Lorraine, and will be carrying on, at an inland location, with improved efficiency and the same dedication to wood.

Both men prefer wood over fiberglass, which is easier and cheaper to maintain and has long since overtaken wood in the building of boats. They value the fact that fiberglass hulls, laid down one after another on the same mold, are all alike, while with wood, each hull can be reshaped to improve trim and performance.

Some sailors contend that a wooden boat handles differently, feels different and sounds different from plastic as the waves slap its sides. When “coming about,” from one tack to another, they find that a wooden boat is less likely to stall “in irons.”

The shop, which Ralph opened in 1973 and is heated by a wood stove and until recently was equipped with an old gasoline engine for hauling boats, has seen major changes. For many years, Ralph would design or “loft” a boat by laying out the parts full size on a white-painted floor. He would mark the curved members with brads and then bend a thin “batten” around them to make a “fair” curve with no bumps.

Most designers now use computer programs to create the same curves. Ralph’s other son, Edward, learned computer modeling and urged his father to try it. Ralph feared at first that the computerized curves would flatten near their ends, unlike the wooden battens. But the technology improved and Ralph was able to stop working on his hands and knees.

The shop has built and restored 70 boats ranging from a 44-foot lobster boat to 12-foot skiffs and including many Friendship sloops, among them the just-launched 40-foot Westwind. The Stanley yard became a mecca for visiting sailors and would-be customers.

But high taxes and the skyrocketing prices for waterfront property sparked his decision to move the yard. He now devotes himself to playing the fiddle (he has built violins as well as boats) and pursuing his studies of Down East Maine genealogy and Maine’s marine history. He hopes to sell the property including his house with a lifetime proviso that will let him and his wife, Marion, continue to live there.

Richard and Lorraine have relocated the shop to rented space across the harbor in Manset and hope to find an inland site where they can build a new shop.

You can bet that Richard, a perfectionist like his father and one of the fastest boatwrights ever seen, will keep on building fine boats — and that they will be made of wood.

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