By Sarah Tomasello, LRWP 2021 Boat Build Lead
Throughout 2021, I volunteered with the LRWP to build a wooden boat—a long, narrow rowing shell–destined for use on the Raritan River. During the pandemic, this boat building project was like a good dream. While I spent weekdays working remotely, Saturdays with the boat project meant the smell of cedar, the roar of the power planer, the feeling of smoothly sanded wood, and being with other people. One year later, I decided to live that dream by pursuing carpentry and wooden boat building through a program called The Carpenter’s Boat Shop, located in mid-coast Maine.
Like many volunteers working on the rowing shell with the LRWP, I began with minimal experience. Our workshop was a hands-on classroom where other volunteers generously shared their skills. With this support I quickly gained more experience and confidence. Along the way I discovered that I liked nothing more than being in a workshop environment, making things with wood and tools, teaming with others to solve problems, and getting caked in sawdust.
This past February, I drove up to Maine and entered the 4-month long Carpenter’s Boat Shop program, where I am continuing to learn how to build small wooden boats. This program resembles the LRWP boat build project in that it is centered around building a community and sharing skills. At the Boat Shop, I live and work alongside a group of eight other apprentices, sharing chores, cooking meals, going for hikes along the coast, and building a type of row boat called the Monhegan skiff.
The Monhegan skiff is an historic vessel in this region that is still used by the residents of nearby Monhegan Island. Once used primarily by fishermen, the Monhegan skiff was designed to safely navigate the rolling ocean waters around the island and transport fishermen between the shore and their workboats. The skiffs are still purchased for this purpose. The neighbors who frequently visit the Boat Shop campus may have ties to Monhegan Island or have worked as boatbuilders in the region. It is not uncommon to see old wooden boats—restoration projects in progress—sitting in front yards. It is inspiring to be in a place where there is a palpable sense of history and connection with the natural environment. The craft of building small wooden boats weaves these things together.
Being part of this community in Maine makes me excited about what wooden boats can do for the Raritan region. Building the rowing shell with the LRWP helped me see the history and beauty of the Raritan River, Raritan Bay, and nearby waterways. Bringing a community together to build small, well-crafted boats builds a culture of connection with local waterways, local history, and between neighbors, hopefully leading to increased stewardship and recreational access to the Raritan.