July 03, 1989 12:00 PM

by Dana Story, Photographs by John Clayton

In an age of nuclear aircraft carriers and 1,300-foot oil tankers, it is hard to imagine a time when shipyards smelled of sawdust and wood preservative and beguiled the ear with the whine of saws driven by flapping belts and the steady chip-chip-chip of men carving with an adz. Anybody seen an adz lately? It is a short-bladed ax, and at one time shipyards were filled with men who handled them as deftly as a Chinese chef wields a cleaver. In Essex, Mass., that time was not long ago. From the 1650s to the 1940s, wooden ships were built by the thousands in Essex, which, as this book relates, fronted on a quiet Atlantic bay, boasted plenty of timber and had soil good for nothing but resting lunch pails on.

U.S. frigates built in Essex helped win the War of 1812. The Blackfish, a 52-foot schooner produced at the Jacob Story yard in 1938, was small by Essex standards, but the materials and workmanship that went into it reflected centuries of proven practice. In March 1938, when the Black fish’s iron keel was laid, photographer John Clayton, who was fascinated with the quiet collegial bustle of the yard, decided to chronicle the ship’s construction. He photographed almost daily through the ship’s Aug. 1 launching; 86 pictures appear in this book, with long captions by Dana Story, Jacob’s brother and a fifth-generation shipbuilder himself.

As the pages turn, the ship rises from its keel, a spinal column that sprouts upreaching wooden ribs. These are covered by bent horizontal planks to form a hull. Story leaves many technical terms unexplained, and Clayton, favoring close-ups and not wanting to get in the way, usually recorded progress when the men were at lunch. His best shots show workers, in coveralls and rolled-up sleeves, at times puffing pipes, hefting mallets and augers and folding measures as they attend the growing body of the ship like Lilliputian physicians building their own Gulliver.

In the last photo—an undated shot of the ship under sail—all those meticulous steps of construction, fit and finish are transformed. The Blackfish is alive. Recalling the vast sums of know-how and loving labor locked in every caulked seam and bolted plank, you glimpse the soul of a new machine. (Ten Pound Island Book Company, 3 Center Street, Gloucester, Mass. 01930)

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