A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time: Joel White's Last Boat (Paperback)


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Author: Douglas Whynott

E.B. White and his son Joel both had a respect for beauty, simplicity, and practicality when it came to their work. For E.B., it was writing. He talks about these qualities in The Elements of Style, the classic guide to English-language usage, and he demonstrates them in works like Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. For Joel, it was building and designing boats that are "simple of line yet sound in engineering, traditional above water and modern below." A Unit of Water, a Unit of Time is a touching, engaging look at the life, work, and influence of Joel White and the craft of boat making.

Whynott spent a year (June 1996 to July 1997) at White’s boat yard in Brooklin, Maine. At the time, White was battling cancer, nearing the end of his life, and designing what would be his last boat, the W-76, a wooden racing yacht with "sublime lines and exquisite rigging." A Unit of Water, the result of that experience, traces White’s life from his birth in 1930 to his childhood spent in New York and Maine, his naval architecture studies at MIT, and his eventual move to Brooklin, where he began working at the small boat yard that eventually became his own. In the early ’80s, White and his crew stopped making fiberglass boats in favor of wooden ones; Brooklin, headquarters for WoodenBoat magazine and the WoodenBoat School, became the center of the wooden-boat revival and White something of a boat-building guru. The book looks closely at the art of boat making–shaping deck beams, making bronze chocks, boring holes through sternposts–and the many characters in the Brooklin boat-building community. It’s very interesting stuff, and Whynott tells the story simply and thoughtfully, emulating White’s philosophies. He also describes White’s health battles with respect and poignancy and without getting overly sentimental.

Joel White was a man of few words who tended to downplay his accomplishments, but they shine through in A Unit of Water. One Brooklin boat builder, describing the "soul" of boats, could have been describing White: "Boats are live. They talk. The more poorly made boats talk more. The best-made boats don’t talk as much. They’re quiet–quiet soldiers, they call them." –Andy Boynton