BROOKLIN — Imagine for a moment that it’s a bleak February afternoon. Outside a snug kitchen the wind is howling, the rain pelting down and, at the shore, an icy bay churns with waves. For someone who loves boats and being out on the water, what could be better than to sit snug by the wood stove, a cup of hot coffee — or maybe a wee dram of something stronger — in hand and enjoy a game with some of the world’s foremost authorities on building and restoring classic wooden boats. What beats chatting with a renowned schooner captain who can reveal some tricks for sailing the Maine coast in a “thick o fog”?
If you live on the Blue Hill Peninsula, or maybe on Deer Isle, the idea isn’t that far-fetched. You might be lucky enough to know maritime historian, WoodenBoat Magazine technical editor and former head of watercraft preservation at the Mystic Seaport Museum Maynard Bray; boatbuilders like Brion Rieff or Doug Hylan; or schooner sailor, educator and raconteur Havilah Hawkins; maybe even well enough to share an afternoon or evening of informative — but not overly serious — boat talk.
Even if you’re not lucky enough to know any of those folks personally, it is still possible to meet and learn from them and a raft of other experts on traditional boats, boating and things nautical on the website Off Center Harbor (offcenterharbor.com), based in the town that describes itself as “the boatbuilding capital of the world.”
The site was launched a little more than four years ago by five founders with impeccable nautical credentials. In addition to Bray, who is widely credited for the resurgence of interest in traditional boats that began in the 1970s, the group includes: maritime photographer Benjamin Mendlowitz; boatbuilder and WoodenBoat School instructor Eric Blake; maritime writer Bill Mayher; and documentary filmmaker Steve Stone.
Available on a subscription basis, the site has grown in both scope and membership.
“We started with our expertise, wooden and classic boats, but we’re expanding to much broader topics,” Stone, who functions as Off Center Harbor’s public voice and oversees the site’s operations, said recently. Membership in the site has shown “48 months of positive growth,” he said, and OCH now has “thousands of members in over 50 countries.”
The site brings members information on a wide array of topics in a variety of formats.
A searchable library of high-quality videos produced exclusively for the site is organized into several categories ranging from boat handling to “in the shop” to “on the water.” Those broad categories are further subdivided into narrower topics, each of which may have several relatively short videos that are instructive, entertaining or both.
Recent additions to the video library include, among others, a tutorial by Brooklin Boat Yard owner Steve White on “Shaping Sails for Performance” on board his successful 55-foot racer Vortex; a visit to the Australian Wooden Boat Festival in Tasmania; a schooner cruise to Newfoundland; and an inspiring tribute to the late Cape Rosier boatbuilder Peter Chase.
Videos are only a part of the story. Organized in much the same way is a library of “Guide Posts” from a team of experts on nearly any topic of interest to the maritime enthusiast.
Want to read a detailed account of Brion Rieff’s restoration of a classic Herreshoff Fishers Island 31 sloop? Look at Bray’s eight-part — and counting — post.
Want some reassurance that you’re not the only sailor to have had a narrow escape — afloat or ashore — with a boat? Read the “Learning from Experience; My Biggest Disaster and What it Taught Me” posts from circumnavigator Ellen Leonard, schooner longtime captain of the engineless schooner Mary Day Havilah Hawkins or Dick Wagner, founder of The Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle. Or, just for the fun, read the posts by world voyagers Lin and Larry Pardey, designer Ian Oughtred, Apprenticeshop founder Lance Lee and Hawkins talking about their favorite sailing rigs.
Oh, and don’t forget the array of videos and posts covering boatbuilding, restoration and maintenance from true experts.
“A lot of our stuff is really practical — how to,” Stone said.
According to Stone, the best thing about the site for him and his co-founders is the opportunity to do “something we really all love and enjoy,” all while “working with people we respect.”
That work entails a collective process that Stone called “the power of the five,” that involves all of the founders reviewing material before it goes up on the site. The editing process is “the meat grinder” that produces an end product reflecting “the collective vision of all of us.”
For the moment “all of us,” in addition to the five founders, includes video editors Kevin Ross and Heidi Perkins, and a membership and technical specialist, Emma Mathis.
“It’s one of those great businesses that doesn’t take 40 people to run,” Stone said.