My America...Journeys

"Let every fellow tell his tale about." Chaucer

Monday, October 09, 2006


When Harold Burnham lays the keel for one of his hand-crafted wooden boats in the boatyard he has owned since 1995, He is carrying on a family tradition that dates back to 1819. His boatyard is on land where ancestor Oliver Burnham operated a yard five generations ago. Harold is the 28th Burnham to carve out a career in the shipwright’s trade, operating the only full time boat yard in Essex MA today.

Essex set the standard for American fishing boat construction during the 18th and 19th century. At one time, one out of every seven sailing boats in America was built here.

He was born into a culture of sailing and boat building; getting his first taste of boat building at the knee of his father Charles. Neighbor and mentor Brad story a now-retired full time boat builder showed him that he could make a living at it

When he was ten, he began building dories with his brother and sister under Charles’ watchful eye, selling each to build the next. When he was in High School, he restored small Beetle Cats support his sailing habit.

A degree in Maritime Transportation from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy led to five years at sea as a merchant marine. He returned home to dry land to marry his wife Kim and open his boat yard. He hasn’t worked a day since. “A man who does what he loves never works a day in his life”, he says.

His dream is to build replicas of traditional New England fishing vessels like those his ancestors built; pickup trucks of the sea, built as necessities. He uses everything from the ancient adze to modern power tools and like most craftsmen he is loathe giving up his secrets..” It’s largely an eyeball thing”.he says.

His first job came when Tom Ellis, a contractor and antique store owner decided to build a Gloucester schooner. He met with Harold to discuss his needs in 1996. and hired him on the spot.

Work began in October 1996 and Harold worked seven days a week, sometimes eighteen hours a day, weathering the brutal winter to create a masterpiece of the shipwright’s art.

The Thomas E. Lannon slid down the ways in June 1997. It is a 90-foot, 51-ton twin masted Gloucester Schooner, built completely by hand; mahogany above the water line, white oak below, with a nine foot draft under 1700 square feet of sail.

The tradition of Essex Boat building, created over the past two hundred years by his ancestors, is in good hands.