, Newburyport, MA

October 4, 2013

Boat learning for the ages

Bill Plante's North Shore
Newburyport Daily News

---- — I am intending to be one of those attending the launching of the first whale boat in the Merrimack River since nobody really knows when.

Those attending this one at Lowell’s boat Shop this Sunday at 1 o’clock in Amesbury will join in the making of history.

It has been in the making for a year by boat shop manager Graham McKay, boat builder Jeff Lane, and student builders for the past year.

The launching will certainly make for a page in local history and a cause for celebration here and later at Mystic Seaport.

Awaiting it is the Charles W. Morgan, the oldest remaining whaler restored in recent years at Mystic.

It will winter undercover at Lowell’s, and wait for good sailing weather next year for its journey.

It is huge in comparison to ordinary fishing dories, and for good reason. Catching a haddock is one thing. Catching a whale ... Hang on, Moby Dick!

Lowell’s Boat Shop has been recognized as the oldest of its kind nationally. Small wonder the Morgan restorers would choose it for building its whale boat.

The Lowell’s of this time, however, is a boat shop at an entirely different level. Established in 1793, it built thousands of dories. Today, it is instructing thousands of students in what it once took to breast the challenges of the sea.

As a personal footnote, I painted dories there in 1940.

I dropped by mid-morning of Wednesday to find some 80 Amesbury students and a half dozen teachers surrounding the whale boat while McKay was up at the bow, taking the young to another time and explaining why the whale boat was built as it was.

Learning by doing is what goes on at Lowell’s these days because that’s their mission.

This past year, there were eight Whale Boat Project apprentices: Joe Caruso of Reading, who attends St. John’s Prep; Jackson Kulic and Emily Myer of Amesbury High; Sarah Paullis, Newton, N.H., a Sparhawk School graduate; Brett Phinney, Amesbury, attending Essex Aggie; John Piehl, Andover High School; Graeme Potter, Newburyport, and Zack Teal, West Newbury, Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

I was able to catch Brett Phinney who was there mid-afternoon and asked what his apprentice experience has been for him.

“I love it,” he said.

Education of another time by doing what was done to enable fishermen to provide has resulted in a new kind of schooling. What I had intruded upon was only a fraction of those whose sense of history has been broadened.

Not the least of that was the obvious appreciation of all the students as the morning proceeded from outside on the waterfront to what was waiting inside.

As for that, I have seen it a dozen times and marvel at its graceful blend of beauty and strength built to the challenge of the sea’s largest catch.

In closing their tour, they went to the basement to view a 7-minute video of the history of boat building at Lowell’s. It’s only 7 minutes, but they are very rewarding minutes.

They were in the very room where I, 74 years ago, had fired up the wood stove, mixed the paint, shellacked the knots in the planking, puttied the nail dents, and painted the dories, three a day from 7 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon before walking home to Newburyport.

By pay day I had prepared and painted 12 dories and earned $6.

Years later, I would build three boats of my own.

Boat building at Lowell’s as a learning experience?

You bet.


Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His e-mail address is