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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.