Burnham Launches Isabella

The Launch of Isabella

ANYONE WHO SAYS THEY DON’T make ’em like they used to should have been at Burnham’s Shipyard in Essex, Massachusetts, to watch the launching of the wooden schooner Isabella. When eleventh-generation boatbuilder Harold Burnham pulled the last jack from her starboard side, the 38-foot boat just sat there defying gravity and the skids that had been greased to coax her into the Essex River. But then, nothing about building Isabella happened in haste.

Work on the 18-ton traditional wooden vessel started about a year ago with a pile of white oak and locust logs cut from Massachusetts forests. All the timbers were milled on the site, Burnham said, and the more precisely cut planking was done at a friend’s lumber yard.

“For a mid-sized boat she’s heavy.” Burnham said. “She’s not a boat at all, she’s a small ship.” Indeed, Isabella checks in at just under 1,00o pounds per foot, and that’s before the owners outfitted her. The only fiberglass is on the deck; the hull is all plank and caulk, which should last some 25 years without repairs, according to Fran Cleary, one of a crew of 10 Burnham employees who worked through a rough winter to piece Isabella together.

What does all this wood and work cost? Burnham won’t say, other than that Isabella cost about the same as fiberglass boats of similar size. Owner William Greene was also mum on the price, but didn’t refute Burnham’s estimate. Owning a wooden boat like Isabella is about more than money, he added.

“I kept looking at all the plastic boats, and none of them worked for me,” he said moments after Isabella was successfully eased into the water. “But I love wood and carpentry, and I didn’t want a boat I couldn’t love. Now as I look at her, I know I was right. No plastic boat can give that feeling.”

~ Tim Wacker