Wooden boat expert tells story of boatbuilding in Champlain Valley
NEW HAVEN — The New Haven Community Library will host a talk by Vergennes boat builder and author Douglas Brooks on Thursday evening, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m. In “From Skiffs to Sail Ferries: The Story of Vermont’s Small Boat Traditions,” Brooks will focus on the history and culture of boatbuilding in the Lake Champlain region. While the larger ships that historically plied Lake Champlain, from the gunboats of the Revolutionary era to the steamboats of the 20th century, have been the focus of extensive research and archaeology, the small boats of the Lake Champlain have never been comprehensively studied.
The talk will feature historic photographs of the lake, which show a myriad of small boat types, both finely built craft and their simpler, “carpenter-built” cousins. Many of these are working boats, for fishing, hunting and trapping. In addition there are pleasure boats, including a series of rowboats from the Waterhouse shop on Lake Dunmore. Brooks will also share research from his work with Middlebury College students. In two separate projects he led students studying the region’s various small boats, including oral interviews with trappers and the descendants of boat builders. Historic boats were identified and measured for detailed drawings and, under Brooks’ direction, students built three replica boats.
Brooks’ research also includes a discussion of the sail ferries on Lake Champlain, a subject he took up in 2001 while researching the design for a replica sail ferry. This overlooked type of commercial vessel was essential to commerce of the region, particularly in the long, narrow reaches of the south lake. Sail ferries were a vital form of transport and trade and their unique design was ideally suited to Lake Champlain waters. Sail ferries also have the distinction of being the longest-serving ferry type found on the lake, operating from the late 1700s to the era of the automobile. Brooks built the sail ferry Weatherwax for the Lake Placid/Essex County Visitors Bureau and the state of New York in 2002.
In addition to researching and building traditional American boat designs he has also apprenticed with five boat builders in Japan, documenting the techniques and secrets of their craft. He’s previously spoken at the New Haven Library with his talk “Ways of Learning: An Apprentice Boat builder in Japan.” His first book, “The Tub Boats of Sado Island: A Japanese Craftsman’s Methods,” was published in Japan in 2003 and was later honored by the Japanese Ministry of Culture. His second book, “Sabani: Building the Traditional Okinawan Fishing Boat,” was published by the Museum of Maritime Science, Tokyo, Japan, 2011. He is currently working on his third book, due to be published later this year.
Brooks writes regularly for WoodenBoat magazine as well as other publications, lectures widely and teaches boatbuilding workshops. He recently returned from a summer in Japan where he built a traditional boat in an international arts festival.
Brooks attended the Williams Mystic Seaport Program in American Maritime History in 1980, and is a 1982 graduate of Trinity College (B.A., philosophy) and a 2002 graduate of the Middlebury College Language School (Japanese). To see photos of his boats and learn more about his work, visit www.douglasbrooksboatbuilding.com.
“From Skiffs to Sail Ferries: The Story of Vermont’s Small Boat Traditions” is part of the Vermont Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau series. The series supports Vermont nonprofit organizations by offering lectures on art, culture and history. It is Brooks’ second talk for the Speakers Bureau.
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