Side Launching The Old Essex Way

Wooden Boat Magazine
Issue #160
May/June 2000

Wooden Boat - Issue #160 - H.A. Burnham Article
Page One

In the 19th century, when the Essex, Massachusetts’s yards were at the height of their production, there were only three basic ingredients to a launching: grease, gravity, and momentum. Grease was the slippery stuff the vessels moved on, gravity was the motivator, and momentum was the safety net that kept them from fetching up in their journey to the water.

Back then, there were too many vessels being built to give each one a lot of launching hoopla. Builders just used the simplest method they could to get the finished boat out of the way of the one they were about to start. The most popular method in Essex was called a side launch. Side launches were carried out by just leaning the vessels over onto a single way and skating them into the water on their own keel and one bilge.

Of course, in today’s world the idea of sending a hundred tons of oak sliding on one side over smoking grease sounds dangerous, but that is only because we don’t do it much anymore. Just imagine the looks you would get from a 19th-century shipbuilder if you tried to explain to him what it is like to pass a car on an undivided highway. The truth is that of the approximately 3,300 vessels launched in Essex, we know of none that was seriously damaged in a launching accident. Further, there is no record of anyone being seriously hurt or killed at one of our launchings, either.

The way a side launch is executed is as follows: First, the vessel is leaned over so that her bilge rests on a short plank and wedges which will ride on the one groundway down into the water. Then a number of greased slabs (the barked edges of logs that are discarded when squaring off timber) are wedged up under the vessel’s keel in the spaces between the blocking she was built on. Finally, as the tide rises, starting aft, the vessel’s blocking is split out from under her keel. When enough of her weight rests on the greased slabs, the gravity pulling her down overcomes the friction holding her back. It is hard to guess which block will start her. Sometimes it takes a little jacking and jerking to get the vessel going, but once she starts things get really interesting.

The bilge way is generally built at a somewhat steeper angle than the grade of the keel’s path so that as the vessel slides aft she also leans over onto her side. There is a reason for doing this. The general theory is that as the vessel enters the water the buoyancy of her quarters will tend to lift her and carry her through the shallow water near the riverbanks. If she were upright on a cradle, on the other hand, she would tend to stick her keel into the mud. Once she is overboard, an added advantage of the side launch over the cradle launch is that there is very little trash to fish out of the water.

Exactly who developed this method of launching is lost to history, but it is almost unquestionable that the draft restrictions of the Essex River spawned its use. Likewise, it was probably the horrendous angle of the vessels as they entered the water that limited the adoption of the side launching technique despite the fact that it was far easier and less expensive than a cradle launch.

Page Two

As launchings became more and more infrequent, they went from being regular occurrences to exciting events. People came from miles around to watch. It is amazing how some people find mystery in the most basic of arts, and I am sure that many builders were entertained by the aura of uncertainty they created. I have heard educated people who witnessed the old launchings comment, “You never know what was going to happen.” My five-year-old son can tell you what will happen if you put enough grease and paraffin under a heavy object on a hill, and that is exactly what I planned to do with the THOMAS E. LANNON.

When my friend Tom Ellis asked in August 1996 if I could design and build him a 65’ schooner for the next charter season (see WB No. 143), I didn’t really answer him. I simply told him that it used to take an experienced builder only four months to build one. I then went on to say that I figured by learning and using the old methods of doing things, I would probably be able to build his schooner as quickly as it could be built. Luckily, Tom only hears what he wants to. After I said “four months to build one,” he missed the rest of the conversation and hired me without a second thought.

Throughout most of the LANNON’s construction, I was terrified. I had so much on my shoulders and so little first-hand experience to rest it on. My father’s advice was that although knowledge based on one’s own experience can only be linear; knowledge based on others’ is exponential. So much of what I fell back on to build the LANNON was the experience of the Essex builders that came before me. As most of them were dead, this was a challenging aspect of the job. Thanks to a number of photographers, historians, and shipwrights, I am able to give as much credit for the LANNON’s remarkable construction and good looks to the old Essex techniques as I do to my own ingenuity.

O all the Essex shipbuilding methods I learned, none intrigued me more than the side launch. Throughout the winter, when I was working out the details of the LANNON’s construction, I would occasionally take breaks to study the launchings and dream of the day when I would get a crack at it. Unfortunately, as the day approached, Tom Ellis admitted he was having some dreams of a different nature about the “Burnham launching technique.”

Several years before, Tom had the unfortunate experience of being the star witness to an almost unbelievable incident at a local boatyard. As he described it, he was paddling by in his kayak when the yard was getting ready to launch a powerboat they had just rebuilt. Tom looked up to see the vessel skid off its cradle and fall with a bang only to greased groundways. Luckily, the groundways held and the boat continued its descent without the cradle. Sure enough, the boat’s momentum carried it miraculously unharmed through a seawall and into the water.

In spite of the old phrase “all’s well that ends well,” no amount of explaining to Tom how a side launch works and the fact there would be no cradle at the LANNON’s launching could do anything to calm his nerves. What made matters worse was showing him pictures of some beautifully executed side launches, as this only intensified his nightmares.

Page Three

What eventually happened was that between Tom’s nightmares, some commitments I had made to my family, and an unfavorable tide, I begrudgingly consented to let my rite of passage fall into the hands of a local genius who I knew, by reputation alone, was deserving of the honor. Ironically, this man Tom chose in order to avoid the “Burnham launch” was not other than the legendary Francis Burnham.

Francis gave Tom exactly what he asked for. Tom said he did not want the vessel traditionally launched, but simply lowered in a very controlled manner. Lowering seems to be about the most apt way to describe the anticlimactic way in which Francis brought an end to a most remarkable construction.

As I mentioned earlier, the old Essex launchings had only three basic elements: grease, gravity, and momentum. However, by their very nature there is a fourth element: complete lack of control. Form the moment the vessel starts until her drag brings her to a stop, there isn’t anything anyone can do but wait and watch. If her builder has laid a proper path, she will follow it; otherwise her momentum will probably carry her. And if it doesn’t, she can always be jacked up to wait for the next tide.

What was funniest about the LANNON’s lowering was that although Francis never let the LANNON out of his control, no one ever had any control over Francis. On the appointed “day of the launch”, Francis showed up, lowered the boat a few inches, and left – leaving 4,000 people wondering what he would do next. It was both horrible and hysterical, and I could do nothing but laugh over the fact that Tom had hired the only person in the world who could drive him crazier than I could.

Over a week’s time, Francis and his crew accomplished in a most controlled manner (using steel, hydraulic jacks, welders, a crane, a bulldozer, and a barge) what generations of shipbuilders had done thousands of times in just hours using nothing more than some grease and a few wedges. As if to add insult to injury, because of the great delays in the lowering, I missed to opportunity to watch the tide lift the LANNON clear of the bottom.

I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t disheartened by the whole scenario. On the other hand, I would have been a fool not to realize that the great opportunities the LANNON provided far outweighed the minor incidents surrounding its launching. I know that with the LANNON’ success I would get another chance at launching, and within months of her completion I had a contract for another vessel.

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This contract became the Chebacco boat LEWIS H. STORY, which I designed and built for the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. Although the STORY is much smaller than the LANNON, she is of similar construction (being built with sawn frames and trunnel fastenings) and she has an equally interesting Essex lineage. Once again, I hired my friend Erik Ronnberg, Jr., to help me with the research, and once again my friend Lew Joslyn documented the project with photographs. Outside of Erik, I used only volunteer help. Some of these individuals were among the best people I ever worked with. Their enthusiasm was great fuel for my ambition, and in the process of having a good time we built ourselves a pretty nice boat.

We laid the keel on the first of February and got her framed, planked and caulked by mid-May. In spite of the fits and starts of the funding, and with the help of friends and family, on September 25, 1998 the LEWIS H. STORY’s newly painted hull was ready for launching.

All was ready to go. We had finished setting up the bilge rail and the slabs just moments before. Margaret Story had done a fine job of christening. The crowd was relatively small compared to the thousands who gathered to watch the LANNON 13 months earlier. However, no one had any doubts that something would happen this day.

Thinking back, it is almost as if I am there. Whack! I was splitting the forward-most block out from under her, and all of her weight was about to fall on the grease. Whack! A thousand second thoughts were racing through my mind, but it was time for action, and I tried not to listen. Whack! The block came out, and there she sat.

You could have heard a pin drop, and all eyes were on me. I put my hands on her stem to give her a shove (as if my meager 170 pounds could make a difference), and as I touched her she started. Before I could put my weight into it she was off moving faster and faster and faster. With a splash, her stern dipped and her bow lifted and she was afloat. Then SNAP! the drag took up just as I had planned it, and a 12″ by 16″ by 8’ oak timber followed her down end over end, stopping her just alongside our float on the opposite bank.

Even though the STORY was a comparatively small boat, it was a pretty cool sight and without question a highlight of my career. The crowd went wild, and I must admit I felt like a baseball player who had just driven in a three-run-homer in the top of the ninth to clinch the World Series. I felt lucky beyond imagination! Further, I was really grateful to everyone who helped put me where I was. Not the least of these folks was Tom Ellis. He was the coach who put his career and his whole life on the line to drag me up out of the minor leagues. What’s more, he knew better than I did that I would not disappoint him.

Page Five

In spite of this, I had to laugh at some people’s comments: “What the hell was Tom Ellis thinking?” “Why didn’t you launch the LANNON that way?” These questions echoed for days and although I never asked Tom, he gave the answer the next time I saw him out on the LANNON: “I don’t know what I was thinking of, Harold. You couldn’t hurt this boat even if you tried.”

Tom summed up the underlying secret behind all of our launchings: Our vessels are built to take the worst that God and the North Atlantic can throw at them. If we could destroy one by sliding it down a mud bank, you wouldn’t want to go to sea in it.

Harold would like to give the Story family his sincere thanks for being mentors and friends: “First, it should be noted that all of the older vessels pictured in this article were built by A.D. Story, who employed a number of my ancestors in their construction. Secondly, all of these photographs and much of the technical and historical information in this article was provided by A.D. Story’s son Dana. Dana has always been a great source or both inspiration and information in most of my shipbuilding endeavors. Finally, I would also like to thank Brad Story, Dana’s son, who showed me by quietly going to work each day that I could make a living building wooden boats in spite of what the world was telling me.”