Wooden boat building: An ancient craft still afloat on the North Fork

05/12/2011 12:27 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Andy Langendal, right, and son Erik at work on a replica of a Herreshoff sailboat on Tuesday morning.

The business of building wooden boats is alive and well on the North Fork.

Some say it’s a revival, but others say it’s simply a continuation of what they’ve been doing for years.

Just ask Anders Langendal. He’ll tell you he’s been building and repairing wooden boats for 50 years, most of them at Greenport Yacht and Ship Building Company on Carpenter Street, in space provided by company owner Steve Clarke. And for the last four years, Donn Costanzo and his partner Bruce Wahl have followed the old ways at Wooden Boat Works, their company at Hanff Boatyard on Sterling Street.

They were invited there by owners John and George Costello, who Mr. Costanzo said believe in and support marine historical renovation.

“John and George have been so wonderful to me,” he said. Pat Mundus, daughter of noted shark fisherman Frank Mundus, served as the matchmaker, bringing the boat builder together with the Costello brothers.

At the outset of her own career, Ms. Mundus was torn between boat building and a more practical pursuit. After graduating from SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler, she spent 17 years as an Exxon oil tanker captain. Now she can indulge her love of boat building by helping Mr. Costanzo.

“Before it was a fishing village, Greenport was a boat building village,” Ms. Mundus said.

The eyes of those who toil in natural planking and decking rather than steel and fiberglass take on a special gleam when they talk about and work on historic boats in need of tender loving care.

Giving a tour of his yard, Mr. Langendal, 67, points out with pride boats from 1917 and 1920 on which he and his two sons are laboring.

“We’re kind of snobby that way,” he said about the love of working on the old boats. “Boats that have a soul.”

He’s not so snobby that he turns down work on more modern craft. Still, he said the older vessels present the most interesting challenges.

Mr. Langendal came to Greenport from his native Sweden in 1965 looking for adventure after a turn in the Merchant Marine and work at a Swedish shipyard. Through the 1960s, much of his time was devoted to maintaining racing sailboats.

Mr. Costanzo, 59, similarly sought adventure, traveling to Italy, France, Spain, Great Britain and Italy, where wooden boat building was in its renaissance. He returned to the East End about 12 years ago and employed his skills in Hampton Bays and Speonk before finding a building in Aquebogue, which he and Mr. Wahl maintain for boats too large for their Greenport space.

“Greenport has such a wonderful history,” Mr. Costanzo said. He credits people like the Costello brothers and Mr. Clarke for having “kept this place so unique. Greenport’s authentic. It’s the last bastion of a working waterfront,” he said.

While many boatyards depend on lifts to bring smaller boats in and out of the water, the village still has three marine railways.

Larger vessels can sail or motor right onto a wheeled cradle and be pulled along the tracks out of the water and into the yard, as is done in some New England ports, Mr. Costanzo said.

Keeping those tracks functional “is our heritage,” Ms. Mundus said.

“These boats are sculptures,” Mr. Costanzo said of the old wooden crafts.

Mr. Langendal added, “It’s a piece of history to be able to restore old boats.”

Even in a difficult economy, the boatyards have continued to thrive.

“I’ve never been out of work a day in my life,” Mr. Langendal said.

“I’m busier than ever,” Mr. Costanzo said.

Not all customers are among the wealthy, but they appreciate their boats and that’s where they put their money, both men said.

And the local economic impacts are substantial. Thanks to the boat-building business, there are jobs for craftsmen, painters, varnishers, machinists, riggers, sail makers and others.

There are schools to train would-be builders, Mr. Langendal said.

He learned from a master as a teen, during a five-year apprenticeship, and is convinced that’s the best way to refine a person’s abilities.

Methods and materials have changed over time, he said, but basic craftsmanship remains as crucial as it was when he started his career.

Mr. Langendal tends to prefer the tried-and-true techniques that have served him for so many years. Running his hand over new decking he installed on an old boat, he said he and his workers cut the oak themselves. And it isn’t easy to procure.

“You can find it,” he said. “But it’s a little expensive.”

He said he’s getting more calls of late to install engines on old sailing crafts as owners no longer want to depend solely on the wind.

“It’s a lot of hard work, especially during the winter when there’s no heat” in the old barn-like structure where Mr. Langendal works 10 to 12 hours a day. But it’s worth it when customers are happy, he said.

The only part of the business he doesn’t love is the attendant paperwork.

Both Mr. Langendal and Mr. Costanzo see a bright future for boat building in Greenport.

“This will be the center of the East Coast for classic yachts,” Mr. Costanzo said.

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