Willits D. Ansel: A True Renaissance Man Dies

Will Ansel sailing on the Mystic River at the 2007 WoodenBoat Show/Small Craft Weekend. © Photo: Andy Price.

6 May 2019

By Göran R Buckhorn

Master boatbuilder, author and artist Willits D. Ansel passed away on 13 April 2019, at the age of 90. HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn remembers a friend.

Willits ‘Will’ Dyer Ansel was born on 1 March 1929 into a Navy family in Long Beach, California. He spent his childhood years in exotic places like China and the Philippines until the family returned to the U.S. and Annapolis, Maryland, where the U.S. Naval Academy is located. Will graduated from Stanford University, California, with a degree in political science. During the Korean War, he served onboard the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Rupertus before he joined the submarine service. When Will went ashore, he was employed by the Foreign Service. After having taken a Master of Science degree and in Political Science, he taught at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., a private school where politicians like Teddy Roosevelt, Nixon, Clinton, Gore, Biden and Obama sent their children.

At this time, Will was a teacher on weekdays and an amateur boatbuilder on weekends. However, soon the latter took over. Will, his wife Hanneli and their children moved to Mystic in Connecticut where Will took a job as a shipwright at Mystic Seaport Museum in 1970. He worked at the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at the Museum until 1982, took a break from the Museum for a couple of years but was back in the Shipyard from 1985 to 1989.

In the 1970s, the whaleboat was almost extinct. The double-ended whaleboat was the vessel lowered down from a whaleship, and the boat from which the whales were hunted and killed – a large industry in America in the 19th century. The Museum’s Shipyard Supervisor Maynard Bray asked Will to research and build replica whaleboats to outfit the Museum’s whaleship, the 1841 Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world. Out of Will’s research on and building of a whaleboat came the wonderful book The Whaleboat: A Study of Design, Construction and Use From 1850-1970 (1978; 2nd ed. 1983; 3rd and extended ed. 2014, with additional chapters by Will’s son Walter Ansel and his granddaughter Evelyn Ansel).

Walter, Will and Evelyn Ansel signing their book, “The Whaleboat”, in Mystic Seaport Museum Bookstore in 2014. © Photo: Göran R Buckhorn.

While Will officially had retired from Mystic Seaport Museum, in 2002, he came back to teach some shipwrights how to build whaleboats, including his son, Walter, who as a teenager had followed his father to ‘help out’ in the Shipyard. After finishing college, Walter became a shipwright at Mystic Seaport Museum. He is today a senior shipwright in the Shipyard.

During Will’s boatbuilding career, he built ca. 50 historic small craft. He also wrote and illustrated books and articles. Among his books are the previous mentioned The Whaleboat, but also A Guide To Fishing Boats And Their Gear (1968; together with Carvel Hall Blair), Chesapeake Bay Notes & Sketches (1970; together with Carvel Hall Blair), Restoration of The Smack Emma C. Berry at Mystic Seaport, 1969-1971 (1973) and A Kids Book of Boatbuilding (2001). The latter book was published by WoodenBoat in which publication Will published several articles throughout the years. His last article in WoodenBoat Magazine, “How I Build a Boat: Finding beauty in simplicity”, (September/October 2015, No. 246, pages 22-31) is a brilliant piece on how he built a Swampscott dory out in the woods in Maine. ‘Out in the woods’ was his backyard of his wooden, rustic cabin, which he had built himself, in Georgetown, Maine. There he stayed when he was not living in Old Mystic, just down the road from Mystic Seaport Museum.

In the article in the WoodenBoat Magazine, Will writes:

In the woods, there were few interruptions. There were also some real advantages: I could walk around the hull, sight it from various angles and heights, make changes without explanations, make unobserved stupid mistakes, and break off to do other things when it was going badly.

Will continues:

For me, designing is always part of building. The process helps the boat evolve as I search for the impossible: a boat capable of all things. That is, it should sail well and row well. It should be trailerable, but also should be a boat that one can camp in, go to sea in, and run up on a beach on the Maine coast or a tropical island. It should be something one person can handle. It must be beautiful. Everybody knows that no one boat can do or be all these things. But the search continues, and never dies.

Isn’t this a wonderful, philosophical piece of writing?

Will Ansel with his dog in Maine. © Photo: Evelyn Ansel.

When I began working at Mystic Seaport Museum in the year 2000, Will was already 11 years into his retirement from the Museum. I cannot remember where I met him the first time, but it was probably in the Museum Bookstore. I understood that Will was a lover of boats and books, two subjects that we had in common. We continued to meet on and off when he came down from Maine to visit his family in Old Mystic and Mystic. Sometimes Will looked me up at the Museum to ask about my latest writing projects and tell me about his writing and the boatbuilding projects he had going on. We always made sure that we would see each other at the WoodenBoat Show, which had appeared every year at Mystic Seaport Museum since 2007.

When Will heard that every summer I went to Maine with my family to visit my mother-in-law in Brunswick, which is less than 19 miles from Georgetown, he immediately invited me to come to visit his cabin. Among other things, he wanted to show me his art, his abstract paintings that he was painting there in his house in the woods. Unfortunately, our schedules never worked out to match each other, which I’m now terribly sad about.

When I was appointed editor of Mystic Seaport Museum Magazine in January 2011, I suddenly found myself in an office, a physical place (with a door), where Will could come to sit down so we could discuss whatever was on our minds. Now, as you all know, time flies when you are having fun; Will and I constantly lost track of time, so a ‘Will session’ could take one or two hours – or more.

One of Will’s ‘books’ that was not published by an ordinary publisher is his “What Boat Carpenters Argue About or I Never Saw It Done That Way Before”. This spiral-bound booklet was published by The Georgetown Historical Society in 2008. Not only is it written by Will, but it is also illustrated by him, as are many of his books. It is a pity that this book did not find a regular publisher as it is worth a larger circulation. Drawing by Will Ansel from his book.

Having read some of Will’s articles and books and as the new editor of the Museum’s magazine, I wanted to include a piece by his hand in the publication of which I was in charge. We discussed some suitable topics. As a shipwright who had worked on restoring the Charles W. Morgan in the 1970s and 1980s, Will was like a history professor specialising in American whaleships and whaling. This was an appropriate time to think about such an article. The Museum’s Shipyard had been restoring the Morgan since a few years earlier and there were plans to take her out to sea on her 38th Voyage in the summer of 2014. This was of course going to be covered in Mystic Seaport Museum Magazine. What I needed was a historical piece about the Morgan and whaling vessels in general. Will agreed to write the article.

Will Ansel in his cabin. © Photo: Evelyn Ansel.

It came to be a long process, as Will wrote the article by hand. He sent me a draft that was extremely good. There were barely any edits to make in his piece. I sent him a short note saying that I was very pleased. A few days later, my phone rang at the office: it was Will – I think it was the first and only time I talked to him over the phone. He said that he had made some changes in the article, but I would get it soon. He was going to send the hand-written article to his wife Hanneli, who was in Old Mystic, so she could type it to me. A week went by and Hanneli come into my office and handed me Will’s article, printed out on paper. She said that she was uncertain of a couple of words and phrases. I thanked her. Then, I typed in the 2,500-word article on my computer (no, I’m not a fast typist), printed it out and sent it to Will in Maine, and then I waited. The printed-out article came back after a week with some minor corrections. I corrected the article I had on my computer. The next time Will was down from Maine, he came to my office to discuss illustrations for his article. The article, “The Longevity of the Charles W. Morgan”, was published in the fall/winter 2014 Mystic Seaport Museum Magazine, the celebratory issue of the Morgan’s 38th Voyage. It’s one of the best history pieces in the Magazine since I became the editor of the publication.

At one of Will’s visits, he brought with him his photographs of the Swampscott dory he was building in Georgetown, pictures that were later to grace his article in the September/October 2015 issue of WoodenBoat Magazine. It was such a pleasure to listen to Will, this down to earth, multi-talented man, who found peace living in a cabin in the Maine woods. It was somehow hard to imagine him working for the U.S. Foreign Service.

A couple of years ago, Will came into my office telling me that he had come up with a new writing project, and I was the right man to help him. He wanted to write a book about ‘The Oar’. Had anyone written about the oar, he asked me? The two titles I could remember were a book published by Mystic Seaport Museum, Oars for Pleasure Rowing: Their Design and Use (1970, 2nd ed. 1993; 3rd ed. 2002) by Andrew B. Steever and The Story of the Oar (1910) by William Grenfell (Lord Desborough). While the one by Steever is still around, Grenfell’s book is impossible to find, I told Will. However, I did have a few books in my rowing book collection that briefly bring up the oar as a tool to move a vessel forward whether it’s a Greek, Roman, Viking, Medieval or Venetian vessel. After work, I gathered the books in a box, which I brought to my office the following day. Will came to collect the box but left first after we had had one of those 2+ hours chats about the books. I would see Will that summer sitting at a desk behind a pile of books at the Museum’s research library making notes – by hand, of course – about the oar. Many months later, when he handed me back the box with my books, he said something about the history of the oar was a daunting task to put down on paper. I could only imagine. I really don’t know how far he got with his book about the oar.

Will Ansel in one of his boats. © Photo: Evelyn Ansel.

Earlier this year, Will came to my office for a chat. Sadly, I was off for a couple of days, so I missed his visit. Sorrowfully, I would not see him again. Will took ill in early April and passed away a week later.

Will was a remarkable, humble and witty man, a true Renaissance man. I will miss him and our chats about boats and books, and everything else that crossed our minds.

Willits ‘Will’ Dyer Ansel, born on 1 March 1929, died on 13 April 2019. He is survived by his wife, Hanneli Vartianen Ansel, four children and their spouses and six grandchildren.

4 comments

  1. What a wonderful tribute to a very special person, Göran. Thank you for providing this exquisite eulogy.

  2. A fine tribute to Will. Possible to print it in the magazine? Probably not, but there should be something.

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