Taking Shape: Planking Helps Bring First Light Boat To Life

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: History , Boating , Chatham , Local History

First Light Boatworks builder Drew Dunne walks past a double-ended ketch the company is building for a client on Nantucket. Kat Szmit Photo

CHATHAM Wood shavings litter the floor at First Light Boatworks. The air inside one of the building's massive bays is pungent with the scent of cedar. There is something else, as well: a sense of excitement since progress has clearly been made in the build of a double-ended ketch, which is beginning to resemble the beauty she'll be upon completion next June.

This is the part of boat building that First Light co-owner Jim Donovan relishes.

“For me, the first half of the project is the most exciting,” Donovan said. “Lofting and defining the shape, setting up the molds and the backbone, bending the ribs, planking. That to me is kind of my favorite part. Once we get to the interiors, that's a whole different thing. It's joinery and cabinet making. Creating the shape is what it's all about for me. To take a drawing and make some patterns and set them up and have it all work out with fair lines and a nice pleasing shape that will go through the water.”

The vessel is being built for a client from Nantucket and is set for completion by June 1. So far the process has involved exactly what Donovan described, with builders Drew Dunne and Brendan Ahearn now working on planking the boat, which involves precise measurements and methodical attention to detail.

Unlike a home, planking a boat takes time. A lot of it. Affixing one plank can mean an entire day's work between shaping, constructing, and attaching it to the boat.

“The shape of that plank, it's not only a huge curve, which is a very precise thing, it's also a continuously changing bevel, the edge of the plank, to accommodate for the shape of the boat,” said Donovan. “It's not like you can just cut it. You have to mark the inside and the outside. Side to side they should match, but other than that no two are the same.”

The wood being used on the planks is cedar, which Donovan said is a fairly strong wood that's also lightweight, rot resistant, and is easy to bend and work with.

“And it smells good,” said Donovan, who added that consistent humidity is also important to the life of a wooden boat. “With a wooden boat it's better to maintain a relatively constant humidity. It's better to keep a boat on or near the water. We like to keep the boats here where it's always pretty damp.”

So what's next in this build?

“We have a couple more weeks of planking, and then our whiskey plank party,” said Donovan, referring to a celebration held to commemorate putting on the last side plank. “Then a lot of different things start happening: building the deck and interior simultaneously. We've already built the spars, the main mast, mizzen mast, and booms. We'll be getting right into bulkheads, deck beams, deck framing, and various interior component fabrication.”

Donovan said that during builds such as the ketch, as well as the restoration projects the company enjoys, his mind often wanders back to the days when wooden boats were the norm. That First Light is carrying on an important history is not lost on its crew.

“I think of the crews around 100 years ago,” Donovan said. “The speed and quality and ingenuity with which they were able to produce such nice vessels, with way less technology than we have. I think we're just kind of working to come close to what they were doing.”