B.Y.O.B. (Build Your Own Boat): Joseph Antin, MD

Chief and program director of stem cell transplantation and physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, as well as professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts

In this edition of pASHions, Joseph H. Antin, MD, discusses his lifelong interest in boats – from reading about adventures at sea when he was younger to building boats with his wife as a shared hobby.

And, new this edition, hear more from our interview with Dr. Antin in our new Sound Bites feature.

Dr. Antin offers two simple rules for starting a new hobby with your spouse, and discusses the similarities between building boats and practicing hematology.

When did you become interested in boats?

Boating has been an important part of my life for many years. My father always had boats, and I remember boating around the Long Island Sound in a wooden Chris-Craft when I was young. Also, my parents made me go to bed before I was ready to fall asleep, so I read. Some of my favorite books were from the “Tod Moran” series by Howard Pease. The stories were about a boy who shipped out on tramp freighters in the 1920s and had many seafaring adventures.

“The runabout (our biggest project to date).”

During medical school, I became interested in the history of whaling. (Now, of course, I’m against the practice.) I started collecting artifacts, like scrimshaw carvings, from the two decades when whaling was at its peak. My wife, Jane, and I have a decent collection of these carvings, which were made by sailors who grew bored on long whaling trips. They engraved whale teeth, cribbage boards, and frames for winding wool.

“The baidarka, or Aleutian kayak, is an 18-foot kayak made of Western red cedar, which is impossible to buy because of deforestation. Fortunately, our lumber supplier had some recycled wood: A winery in upstate New York had recently gone out of business and was selling off their property, including a disassembled, 20-foot wine-aging vat made of Western red cedar. We converted one of the barrel staves into the panels of this boat. It smelled like wine when we first built it, but the smell faded by the time we sanded and finished it.”

How did you transition from reading about boats to building them?

I’m not exactly sure where the idea to start building my own boats – rather than using fiberglass boats – came from, but around 2000, when our son graduated college, I suggested it to my wife as an activity we could do together. She wasn’t convinced at first.

She said, “I don’t know anything about tools and woodworking.” I reminded her that she had all the necessary skills from making quilts for our children and nieces and nephews for years. Quilting is an intricate job – it entails planning, measuring, cutting, stitching, and problem-solving to make everything fit. And she was famous for building gingerbread houses, which also involves planning, measuring, and cutting. In fact, one year, based on a challenge from our son, she built the Notre Dame Cathedral, with flying buttresses and stained-glass windows, out of gingerbread. So, I said, “Don’t worry about the tools. You’ve basically done this before.”

We started with kayaks in 2000, and, over the past 17 years, we’ve built four kayaks, a rowing shell, a runabout motorboat, and a sailboat.

What does the process involve?

The kayaks we built first are simple vessels, and we purchased plans and kits to get us started. It’s like following an architectural drawing, except it’s a boat instead of a building.

You start off by putting together the strongback, or the framework used to hold the forms and molds in place while you build the hull. The molds provide the basic shape and structure of the boat, depending on the type of boat, and the most critical thing is to make sure the boat is straight. You don’t want the boat to lean off to the left or right. Next, you buy the wood, measure and cut it, and steam and bend each piece, depending on the plan. You waterproof, sand, and varnish the wood, and then you’ve got yourself a boat.

When do you find the time to work on these projects?

It’s something that we do in our home garage, so it’s a nice after-work project. We eat dinner together, then work on a boat for an hour or two.

Of course, some tasks take much longer, so we save those for the weekends. A boat isn’t something you can bang out in a few weeks; quicker projects can take two or three months. The runabout motorboat took about five years to finish.

Have you and your wife enjoyed working on the projects together?

We have, and we get along better than ever. We spend more quality time together, figuring out the puzzle without the distraction of the phone or television. We also spend a lot of time at specialty lumber yards, selecting the best wood for the boat we’re building.

We both take a great deal of pride in not only the appearance of these boats, but also their ability to float! When we take them out on the water, we get a lot of compliments on them. Our best days are when people sail over to us and say, “Boy, that’s a beautiful boat.” It makes our day.

Dr. Antin with the 17-foot racing kayak he and his wife built. “This was based on designs from an Australian naval architect who responded to one of my forum posts about plans for a racing kayak. We worked together to get the kayak to our specifications.”
Our boat projects in various stages of construction.”

Is there any overlap between your hematology career and your hobby?

Building a boat is similar to hematology in that both are complicated processes that require teamwork and careful planning. When you successfully build a boat, it’s similar to successfully treating a patient: You have a result that you can be proud of.

And, as with hematology, when we get stumped, we can turn to colleagues (i.e., our fellow enthusiasts) for help. Because, as it turns out, when people draw boat-building plans, they don’t bother being too precise. So, even with the instructions in hand, we run into problems or get stuck on an unclear direction.

I’ve sought assistance from people on several online boat-building forums. These are people with similar interests who are always happy to help. Some people post brilliant, flawless work on these forums, and it can get competitive. But I recently read an editorial by Maynard Bray, a well-known boat-builder, who expressed the view that boats should be fun. You don’t need to make a boat so perfect that you’re afraid to get a scratch on it. I took that to heart. If we get a scratch on one of our boats, we can fix it or keep it as a badge of honor. It shows that the boat is not for display – it’s something to be used and loved.

SHARE