CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Boat builder learned by doing, now passes it on

Greg Rossel sits at his workbench inside his boat building workshop.
Greg Rossel sits at his workbench inside his boat building workshop.
Posted March 22, 2012, at 3:50 p.m.
Boat builder Greg Rossel's business sign is seen at the entrance to his driveway in Troy.
Boat builder Greg Rossel's business sign is seen at the entrance to his driveway in Troy.
Greg Rossel stands inside his home of 40 years in Troy with his wife, Norma.
Greg Rossel stands inside his home of 40 years in Troy with his wife, Norma.
Greg Rossel stands outside his home boat building workshop.
Greg Rossel stands outside his home boat building workshop.

Last Sunday on the road to Troy, I passed a woman in a bright red dress on a stepladder, washing windows to let the sunshine in. A hopeful emergence of spring was in the air as I arrived at the home of Greg Rossel (pronounced “Russel”), and the stories he shared with me lived up to the day.

Greg was a young man when he arrived in Troy, Maine, 40 years ago. Since then, he has carved out a life as a boat builder, restorer, instructor and writer. He still lives in the same old homestead in Troy, but his work has brought him to many places around the world and connected him to even more. His propensity to connect with people is not just his great boat building skill. Greg knows how to tell a good story. He’ll tell you that building boats and telling a good tale go together, and he learned both through direct experience.

Greg grew up in Staten Island, part of New York City. I asked him how a New York kid ends up in Troy, Maine.

“Basically, it was by Volkswagen,” he said with a little laugh, and launched into the tale.

In 1970 Greg became intrigued by the back-to-the-land movement, popular at the time. When he and a friend saw a magazine ad for a farm apprenticeship in Troy, off they went.

The transition to Maine was not as dramatic as you might think, Greg explained. When he was growing up, the tip of Staten Island was an old, working waterfront, “not that much different from Eastport, Maine.” As kids, Greg and his friends hung out with old-timers at the boatyard, who allowed things that “would probably get them arrested today.” The kids worked right alongside them, lifting up multi-ton boats on house jacks, painting and puttering.

Greg loved hanging out with the old guys, hearing their stories, and learning by watching them work. “They let us take boats out on the water on our own. We used wedges, inclined planes, and vectors; it was a great environment for us kids to learn.”

Maine’s environment of working folks eking out a living was not a big leap for Greg. Farm life, on the other hand, was a struggle. The idea of eating locally grown sustainable veggies was not yet in vogue.

“People weren’t eating that stuff back then. 1972 was not a great time to sell Mainers kohlrabi,” Greg said. So he learned from his neighbors how to make his way in a variety of jobs.

“You just cobbled together work.”

In 1975, Greg and his wife calculated their total expenditures for the year at $2,000. Even in poverty, however, Greg found a world rich with stories and things to learn.

“Everyone was a chimney mason; everyone was a roofer; everyone was a builder. You just had to figure out how to do it.”

Greg figured out a lot and learned from his neighbors, some of whom lived without electricity and farmed with oxen.

“The 1930s kind of hung on into the ’60s in rural areas … When farmers ran out of money, they paid in potatoes. We ate a lot of potatoes,” he said.

Eventually, Greg wanted something more, and he decided to take a two-year program at Washington County Vocational Technical Institute in Lubec, known as The Boat School. Since then, he has worked at an Irish boatyard, learned about the history of boats while working at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, helped start up a boat factory in Mexico, started his own shop at home in Troy and began his longest-standing position, working for the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine.

Through his teaching, Greg once worked with a group of Hondurans, flown in through a government program, and taught them how to build boats with the limited resources available to them back at home. He has also taught high-level executives from the U.S., Europe and Japan. Working together in a shop, says Greg, is “the great leveler.” There is no hierarchy; everyone is the same.

Teaching without a shared language has confirmed Greg’s conviction about learning.

“I see it all the time. When you’re around stuff, you absorb it. When you see people actually doing the work, it sinks in.”

Right now, Greg is teaching a boat building course to high school kids at the Penobscot Marine Museum. They learn math, science and more as they build seaworthy vessels.

It sounds familiar.

“We have kind of replicated what my friends and I had as kids,” said Greg. “A few old guys come in and volunteer and help with the work … It all goes together — fixing, working, troubleshooting, telling stories.”

It’s a good way to learn.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

 

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