It's the smell of honeysuckle that sends custom wooden boat builder Ned Crosby back to his adolescence, to the days of running amongst the row of sailboats resting up against the sweet smelling bushes at the Wianno Yacht Club in the quiet coastal village of Osterville, Massachusetts.
Those boats, among them the Wianno Senior and the Crosby Catboat, had a special significance to Ned. They were designed and crafted by two of his ancestors - Horace and Max Crosby, celebrated 20th and 19th century wooden boat builders. Both the Wianno and the Catboat would later play leading roles in the iconic images of the Kennedys sailing off Cape Cod that are now etched into the American consciousness.
The legacy of old-fashioned wooden boatbuilding in Ned’s family predates the Vanderbilt’s railways and the Rockefeller’s oil fields. It’s a more comfortable, salt of the earth type lineage, too, and one that goes back eight generations to the mid 1700s, when Cape Cod was nothing more than a few rural villages surrounded by the mighty Atlantic and foot and sail were the only two methods of getting around. Jesse Crosby, born in 1732, was the man that started it all, and the tradition has continued on since.
Ned continues the craft of custom wooden boatbuilding today at E.M. Crosby Boatworks, his West Barnstable shop that he opened in 2001. Though his father passed away when Ned was 10, he was still able to learn the tricks of the trade from his grandfather and the team of seasoned craftsmen that worked for his family. This special dynamic sealed Ned's destiny as the gentle pressure of continuing the legacy helped morph his lifelong occupation.
Each boat order that Ned receives starts off as nothing more than a concept or a set of plans. Since every aspect is made to order, the plans can very be specific and must be realized with complete accuracy and patient care. The beauty of his craft is understanding and embracing all of the variables.
Since a boat has no straight lines, every compound curve or shape must connect with another in just the right way. This requires not only a good eye but also lots of fitting, shaping, and molding done by hand. The process is intricate and meticulous, but is aided by techniques passed down to Ned from the Crosbys of yesteryear.
During the construction, there always exists a continual push and pull between design and function. “What might look the best necessarily doesn’t work the best. You have to compromise on both fronts. If you lean one way or the other, you might have a boat that looks sweet but there’s no headroom. Or you might have a boat that’s like a condominium on the water, so comfortable, but you’d hate to be caught dead on it,” he says. “That’s the art – getting that compromise right.”
To Ned and his clients, there is a difference in the both the result and the ethos of a custom made wooden boat compared to a generically produced fiberglass vessel. It’s an exercise in the senses. The wood smell is more potent, the feel more solid than hollow, and the sound more soothing.
It’s also important to produce a boat that isn’t just a beauty floating in the harbor. The aesthetic of a wooden Crosby boat may be appealing in its classic timelessness, but it must be strong in all aspects. “It’s one thing to see the surface of the hull or the deck with the shiny paint. But the framework and the integrity of the structure beneath it is what we’re concerned about,” Ned says.
Ned plans on continuing his boatbuilding on Cape Cod for as long as time allows. Perhaps, though, there just may be a ninth generation of Crosby boat builders down the road. Ned has four young daughters who are growing up amidst the sails, the shop and the shore. “I’m hoping there’s a boat builder in one of them, if not all,” he says.