cover image A Unit of Water, a Unit of Time

A Unit of Water, a Unit of Time

Douglas Whynott. Doubleday Books, $23.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-385-48812-9

Even readers with no special interest in boats are likely to be caught up in this elegant homage to Maine boatbuilder Joel White (son of E.B. White), who pursued his obsession with the time-honored craft of designing wooden boats while battling cancer. Whynott (Giant Bluefin) made 17 trips to the Brooklin Boat Yard in Maine, where the meticulous Joel, his son Steve and a yard crew spent two years designing and building the W-76, a grand and graceful racing yacht. While Steve runs the yard, Joel--with a section of his lung removed and walking on crutches after a bone graft--undergoes chemotherapy and learns to walk again, enduring metastatic lung cancer with stoic fortitude. Whynott, who traces his own love of boats back to his Pilgrim ancestors, indelibly captures such laconic New England types as boat painter Raymond Eaton, who, whenever asked how a job came out, always replied, ""It could be better."" Old-timers mingle with boat-loving transplants from Wall Street, Oregon and England. With understated grace, the author evokes a sense of maritime community as well as a fierce devotion to boats and a love of the sea, which emerges as an almost mystical form of communion with nature and the cosmos. His father, who sailed a 30-foot cutter, instilled in Joel not only his love of sailing but also, according to Whynott, a clarity of line and economy of style that resonated in Joel's boat designs and in his essays for WoodenBoat magazine. Joel's death in 1997, months before the launch of the W-76, is heartbreaking. E.B. White would have approved of this quietly profound book: it's a real beauty. (Mar.)