What is a classic?

I was just browsing the site for Gannon & Benjamin, an amazing yard on Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. Benjamin, who, if you glace at his stuff on the site, is worth some attention, had this to say:

QUESTION: What is a classic yacht?

ANSWER: by Nathaniel P. Benjamin

After more than thirty five years of continuous involvement with wooden sailing craft, I am more convinced than ever that a plank-on-frame vessel is the ultimate in yacht construction. Not only does this method produce an enduring vessel with integrity, heart and soul, but it also requires a process that is so ancient and noble as to inspire the builder to work above his ability, to continue challenging himself in his expression of the rarest combination of science and art. According to Webster, the word ‘classic’ properly defines a vessel designed and serving as a ‘standard of excellence’ with an additional caveat of equal import to be ‘enduring and traditional.’ In an age when ‘classic’ is so grossly distorted as to encompass an amorphous range of social unconsciousness from Coca Cola to a popular sitcom, we must remind ourselves of the real meaning of the word. A ‘classic yacht’ must represent a graceful and well-proportioned hull whose individual parts are not only enduring but are created by a traditional process of skill and inspiration. A classic yacht speaks to you in a distinct and compelling voice.

Now this is wonderfully said, but do I agree? Ultimately, no….

Maintaining traditional techniques is critical, and we need to forever maintain the Mystic Seaports of the world and the artisans at places like Gannon & Benjamin. They are the link to the traditions and aesthetics that are ost worthy of celebration. I don’t think, however, that more modern construction techniques eliminate a boat form being considered classic.

Boats trace their “bloodlines” back to those that came before them. Some, such as you basic plastic tub, have only the faintest connection to any golden age. They take no sensibilities from the more distant past, preferring to inspiration from modern conveniences and confused priorities. Others, however, clearly evoke a deeper past – they have a sheerline that Cap’n Nat would recognize or a transom that would be at home in the 1930s. More and more, boats such as these have, at least, modern augmentations or, often significant nods to advances – cold-molded construction, for instance, or high-tech spars. They look right, but bring a bit more to the table.

I hold that we need to embrace the past while celebrating ways to keep it alive in the present. If that means use of epoxy in large portions or carbon fiber here and there, so be it if the thread of design get maintained. The rules are different now than in 1950 and we increasingly know more about materials and hydrodynamics. We should not be ignorant of this, just as we should not be ignorant of steamed ribs and caulked seams. “Classic” means tied to this past, not frozen in it.

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