Boat Whisperer

For Williamsburg boat maker Ben Thacker-Gwaltney, craft is everything.

In his garage on a quiet street in Williamsburg, Ben Thacker-Gwaltney is leaning over the wooden skeleton of what eventually will become an 11-foot paddleboard. He runs a hand down its length in the direction of the grain.

“This took about three months,” says the 47-year-old father of two. First he built a frame. Then he began wrapping it, cutting thin strips of cedar and carefully gluing each into its intended place. Next will come several days of sanding, and then a coating of clear fiberglass through which the cedar will show.

“You get the beauty of the wood with the strength of the fiberglass,” Thacker-Gwaltney says, running his hand back the other way.

Suddenly, he is interrupted by a thought. “Oh, I’ve got two more boats in the backyard that I forgot to show you!”

To lose count of them, you have to keep a lot of boats around, and Thacker-Gwaltney does—12 on this winter afternoon, half of them works in progress. Some he made from scratch: the Dacron skin-on-frame yellow kayak that weighs just 25 pounds and harkens back to the vessel’s origins, when hunters stretched seal skin over wood. Others he finds on the verge of death and restores: the 11-foot, red and white Moth sailboat that a customer in Mathews County gave him for free. Built in the 1960s, it had been in the man’s yard for years, slowly decaying. One look at its curves, and Thacker-Gwaltney took it.

“It’s a boat that deserved to live,” he says.

Each of Thacker-Gwaltney’s vessels has its own story—one of a hundred reasons he says he loves his hobby-turned-profession—but they have things in common, too. At a time when quick and cheap have become standards of manufacturing, each of Thacker-Gwaltney’s boats is made (or remade) with the opposite philosophy. In his home shop in his wooded neighborhood, Thacker-Gwaltney takes his time. He does it all himself, and all by hand. He is finished with a boat not only when it looks just right, but when it feels just right carrying him over water.

He says boats are individuals—things to be fallen in love with, for their shapes and lines as well as for their functionality.

“For all of their history,” he says, “boats have been really organic things, built by people who had a specific need. I’m fascinated by that, and that’s what turns me off about the factory-based market.”

He adds, “It’s a deeper thing for me, definitely. I see it as a craft, more akin to art than to manufacturing.”

Boats, not surprisingly, have always been a part of Thacker-Gwaltney’s life. Growing up in Smithfield, he loved exploring Cypress Creek. “We always had a little motorboat that we’d take out,” Thacker-Gwaltney recalls.

In the early 1970s, his father’s family sold their 100-year-old business, now known as Gwaltney Foods, giving Thacker-Gwaltney’s father the time and cash to pursue his interests. He loved the water—his own dad was a fisherman—and he had wanted to be an architect, so he designed a boat and hired a builder. Thacker-Gwaltney has clear memories of playing inside its half-finished hull, and in the years after it was done, he loved tagging along to the marina to help with its upkeep.

Thacker-Gwaltney was in his late 20s when he decided to try building a vessel of his own. He and his wife, Susan, were living in Charlottesville, where she had just begun a PhD in reading education at the University of Virginia. Thacker-Gwaltney (his wife’s maiden name is Thacker—the couple hyphenated their names after they married), who studied English and religion at the College of William and Mary, was working for Virginia Organizing, a statewide nonprofit that takes on a variety of social justice and environmental issues. He built a 12-foot, skin-on-frame canoe that was light enough to carry on hikes.

“My first few were all canoes,” he remembers. “I realized I liked building them as much as I liked being in them.”

Nearly 20 years later, Tidewater Small Craft is his full-time job. Customers tend to find him through his website or through word of mouth. Sometimes he uses a marine designer’s plans and sometimes he builds by eye. He always adapts to customers’ needs.   

“He understands and accepts you exactly where you are,” says Rebecca Wheeler, who lives in Newport News and was new to the sport when she bought one of Thacker-Gwaltney’s kayaks last year. She mentioned that she was apprehensive about tipping it, so Thacker-Gwaltney made some adjustments and then met her on the water to show her a few tricks

for recovering.

Among Wheeler’s favorite things about the kayak is the way sunlight shines through its fabric sides, illuminating the wooden frame beneath.

“At my last job,” Thacker-Gwaltney says, “so much of what we achieved was intangible. I love that I’m making something that someone will use.”

He says he loves the solitude of his work, too, and giving new life to old things. A lot of the rehabs find him, like the one from Mathews County. Others he has spotted just driving down the street. “Usually, if a boat is sitting in someone’s front yard, it’s for sale,” he says, “even if there isn’t a sign.”

He has traded for old boats, and turned canoes into sailboats and sailboats into row boats.

“Sometimes,” he says, “you just have to imagine what something can become.”

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Virginia Living Museum

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Virginia Living Museum

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