Makin' It: Sam Temple, Wooden Boat Builder in Maine

Posted by Skyler Swezy and Brady Welch


Sam Temple comes from a long line of traditional wood-hulled boat builders. These days he continues the family tradition in Rockport, Maine, not far from where his grandfather learned. Sam's passion for boat-building and boats generally is so charming, we're almost tempted to go out and built a boat ourselves.

Did you grow up in a seafaring community?

I was born in western New Hampshire and lived in a little mill town there until I was 11. It's very nice and small enough to give a little kid a lot of freedom, but far from the ocean. My dad had a wooden peapod, which is a type of rowboat native to Maine. I have a lot of memories of that boat, but it wasn't until my parents divorced and I moved to Maine that I was really taken with the waterfront.

When did you become interested in boat-building?  

My mom's father, Joel White, was a boat builder and naval architect in Brooklin, Maine. I loved trips to Brooklin ever since I can remember. But my mom married Taylor Allen, a man who then, as now, owns and operates Rockport Marine. Rockport is on the west side of Penobscot Bay; Brooklin is on the east. They are 25 miles apart by water. Initially, the things I found to do as a kid in Maine were fish for mackerel, climb around on the rock bulkheads, fall in the water, get the Coke machine door open, and observe all the stuff going on at Rockport Marine.

The yard was a smaller place then—maybe 15 or 20 guys—and I think they looked at me for ways I might be useful. I got paid to hose the dirt parking lot during paint jobs, shoot pigeons that crapped on the storage boats, and I'm sure there was some crawling into small spaces. In high school, I worked on the boatyard fuel dock, and did some rigging and boat moving. I remember clearly seeing the backbone timbers for a 32-foot Lyle Hess cutter arrive on a trailer “live edge,” or bark-on, and within a couple weeks they were shaped and set up by a carpenter. I thought that was pretty cool.  

When did you get the itch to work on boats as a profession?

During college, I worked at a small shop in Brooklin one summer, then Brooklin Boatyard the next. Something clicked, and I thought: "This is it.” Like, this is where I'll live, and what I'll do. Brooklin is the boat-building capitol of the world, or at least it has the sign that says so. There's something like eight boat shops for 800 residents. I learned to sail in a borrowed boat, and it was at at Brooklin Boatyard that I was able to help take the lines off a derelict boat that was being re-built. (Taking the lines refers to developing a three-dimensional plan of the boat's shape as it relates to a grid.) At the time, I still didn't have much in the way of a skill set, and I ended up doing a lot of rigging, yard work, and, in the winter, paint and varnish. I hated the paint stuff—it's mind numbing. I quit after a year to build some little boats in a sheep barn I was care-taking. Looking back, I'm so grateful for that gig. I had a free place to stay, and a barn to work in. The obligation to the animals and to the owner of the place kept me grounded and gave what little income I needed.

I soon started building a shellback dingy on speculation. Then a lobster fisherman from Little Cranberry Isle commissioned me to build her a flat-bottomed skiff. Not long after that I sold the shellback and started building my own peapod. Having family connections to boat building, I had some very helpful visitors those early years, chief among whom was boat historian Maynard Bray. He stopped by to see what I was up to a few times. On one of those visits he suggested I check out the launch of "Seminole," the product of that rebuild I'd helped take the lines off. I went down to the boatyard and somehow ended up on the first sail. While we were sailing, Brian Larkin, who is something like the shop foreman, said I should come back for a few months of work on another boat. I jumped right into building sliding hatches, and stayed for three years beyond that project.     

And where are you now?

Now I work at Rockport Marine full time. My wife and I actually live above the shop. I can still squeeze an interesting side job in between projects, but mostly I'm here to stay. I've worked on six big projects here and only one was a new boat. Everything has been a type of construction that hasn't changed much in 50 or 100 years.  

Is there such thing as an average day?

Not really! Right now I'm leading a crew of nine guys in a partial rebuild of a 57-foot ketch from 1934. There's stacks of wood everywhere. The big tools are on casters, and we have chain falls attached to the roof beams in odd seeming locations. If you want to cross the shop you probably need to climb or duck. For most of the day, I was using an adze to shape a stack of white oak deadwood. The deadwood is what continues the shape of the boat from the usable inside volume to the bolted-on ballast, in this case 14,000 pounds of lead. An adze is like an ax with the cutting edge perpendicular to the handle.

I like leading projects. I get to be a part of all the aspects of the job, and I get to work with such skilled people. Three of the guys on my project have easily twice the experience I do. My role is to make judgment calls, keep decisions coming quickly, and make sure everyone gets along. It helps to have worked in a few different shops, to know a lot of ways to come at something. Beyond that, it's knowing what different tools can do for you. I'm a firm believer that the simplest way is the best way and if you have to go to the catalog of hinges that rotate on two axes you've already failed.

What is it about traditional wood boats? Are they longer-lasting? More beautiful?

A well-built wooden boat feels easier in the water. It smells good, like wood rather than the closed-up smell of water, engine oil, and resins in a space that doesn't breath. It sounds more secure, less like a drum when the waves hit the hull… People will give you a hard time about maintenance, comparing wood to fiberglass, composite, or metal. And it's true. If you really want to neglect a boat, a fiberglass one will stand up to that in a way a wooden boat won't. Most of the boats we build are high-end yachts with a lot of varnish and fancy detail, but it doesn't have to be that way. I know a lot of wooden boats that earn their keep and have a really wonderful aesthetic of flat paint and oiled wood.

To me, the fundamental thing about a traditional boat is that it's repairable. To replace a few planks isn't that big a deal.  After 60 years, some of the boats we build might need a new keel, which is as major as it gets. And from there all the other stuff will be renewed in time. Many of the boats we take care of have been slowly rebuilt this way. Not only is it awesome to see something make the turn from needing work, to being better than new; but now a vessel, say, from the 1950s will be around for another 60 years. The design, the period details, and the memories of that boat will be around. A boat built with local wood that stays in local waters will last a long time.

Makin' It is the work of journalist Brady Welch and illustrator Skyler Swezy, the team behind YrDoingAGreatJob.com.