LAUNCHING THE OLD ESSEX WAY
the 19th century, when the Essex, Massachusettss 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.
course, in todays 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 dont 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,
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 vessels keel in the spaces between the blocking
she was built on. Finally, as the tide rises, starting aft, the vessels
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 keels 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.
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 didnt 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 LANNONs construction, I was terrified. I
had so much on my shoulders and so little first-hand experience to rest
it on. My fathers advice was that although knowledge based on ones
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 LANNONs 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 LANNONs 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
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 boats momentum carried it miraculously
unharmed through a seawall and into the water.
In spite of the old phrase "alls 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 LANNONs 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.
What eventually happened was that between Toms 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 isnt 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 doesnt, she can always be jacked up to wait for the next tide.
What was funniest about the LANNONs 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 weeks 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
I would be a liar if I said I wasnt 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.
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. STORYs 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. Whats more, he knew better
than I did that I would not disappoint him.
In spite of this, I had to laugh at some peoples comments: "What
the hell was Tom Ellis thinking?" "Why didnt 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 dont know what I was thinking of, Harold. You couldnt
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 wouldnt 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. Storys 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, Danas
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
will be added later}
A cheerful launching day for the RUTH LUCILLE, July 20, 1929, with a lot
of guests aboard for the ride to the water, banners flying, and the crews
on two other boats momentarily stopping work. The author built the THOMAS
E. LANNON on this exact same site and launched her in June 1997
although he wasnt able to use the old method used in Essex for thousands
RONALD & MARY JANE heeled over to port, September 4, 1941. Note the
heavily greased groundway, and the greased slabs under the keel.
With everything ready, the aftermost blocks under CARLO & VINCE are
knocked out, February 23, 1932. Note the wedges and slabs under the keel,
and the rudder clamped amidships.
Smoking grease leaves a cloud behind EMERALD as she is launched August
2, 1924. Typical of this launching method, the vessel started off with
a list of about 8 degrees, which increased as she descended the groundway.
Streaming flags and banners aboard EMERALD give an idea of how fast side-launched
boats move by the time they reach the water.
The September 30, 1905 launching of the schooner JAMES W. PARKER 132 gross
tons, built by A.D. Story. Note the attitude of this vessel as she hits
the water. This launching seems accompanied by a minimum of fuss, with
just the yard crew watching the show.
The March 19, 1912 launching of the schooner MARY, showing her very clean
deck arrangement and with her fine lines hardly disturbing the water at
The author places well-greased slabs under the keel of the LEWIS H. STORY,
also seen in the launching photo sequence at right. Burnham designed the
Chebacco boat based on historical sources and built her for the Essex
Visible aft of the sternpost, greased slabs prepare a path. Note the single
groundway to port, also well greased. The hull itself doesnt touch
the groundway; instead, a single plank is placed on top of it with wedges
at each end conforming to the hull shape. The hull is heeled over onto
this assembly. After shes heeled over, the blocks under her keel
are split out, allowing the keel to settle on the greased slabs. At the
critical moment to moment seen here she begins to move.
Note the gear clamping her rudder amidships.
The angle of heel increases midway through the stern-first launching.
The LEWIS H. STORY is a fairly flat-floored vessel, so the heel doesnt
appear as pronounced as it does in the historic photos on the facing page,
but that increased heel helps her over the shallows.
By the time shes afloat, a vessel launched this way is really moving,
as the wave kicked up by the LEWIS H. STORY demonstrates. Barely visible
to the left of the groundway is the dragline, which keeps her from running
away too far.
With almost no floating debris to clean up, the LEWIS H. STORY floats
free. Harold Burnhams ancestors were among the Essex shipwrights
who launched thousands of boats using this method. He had been itching
to give it a try, a chance that finally came with the construction of
the Chebacco boat for the Essex Shipbuilding Museum.