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.
The LRWP has launched a new woodworking class for women, under the guidance of boat build volunteers-turned-instructors Amber Hennes and Sarah Tomasello. Amber gained skills in woodworking through her work in theater design and scenic fabrication across the US. Sarah has taken classes in woodworking, and has been part of our community boat shop boat build since project inception.
Participants are learning several aspects of woodworking, including: preparing and laminating wood for construction; transferring the pattern and cutting the shape; shaping the shaft, grip and blade; sanding; and applying the finish. At the end of the session, participants will have a paddle to take home!
Last Saturday, the second week of the workshop, participants finished gluing and clamping all of the pieces. Everyone’s paddles are now drying on the work benches! The next task is to cut out the basic paddle shape using a jigsaw.
Our goals with the Community Boat Build extend beyond just constructing a boat to access the Raritan River to building a community of individuals that have an interest in the Raritan River as a resource for recreation. During the past eight weeks, more than 60 individuals have assisted with the project in one way or another. We are grateful to those who have helped us source donated goods, recruit volunteers, mill wood for the construction process, set up forms, glue strips to the forms, sharpen chisels and wood planes, document the building process, train other volunteers, and so much more. It has truly been a ‘community boat-building and community building effort!
We are working with a boat pattern, or form, designed by Graeme King. The boat pattern, called Cockatoo, will guide construction of a boat meant to be rowed by one person. This ‘stable recreational’ vessel is constructed on forms that are inverted on a workbench referred to as a ‘strongback’. The boat utilizes thin Western Red Cedar strips for the hull with a framework of Sitka Spruce, Ash and Mahogany woods. The rowing boat; often referred to as a ‘shell’, includes a moving seat. The person rowing the boat engages the seat and two oars (sculling) to move the boat.
We have now completed the application of the final strips on the boat and will be applying the epoxy resin and fiberglass on the hull. Additionally, we have started cutting and shaping the pieces for the interior. These structural pieces create the ‘bone structure’ for the boat and will support the rower while rowing the boat. The first boat will be coming off the building forms in the next week and the construction of the second boat designed by Graeme King will begin.
The program has presented opportunities for the participants to acquire woodworking skills and also to meet and interact with a variety of community members. While Derek Hartwick has been leading the boat-building project, Brian Smith, Sarah Tomasello and Eric Marshall have stepped into leadership roles by leading or teaching some of the skills required for the project.
Each week the ‘Boat Shop” has been a buzz of activity on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Due to the strong interest from the community, and with the gradual post-Covid “return to normal,” for each build day we are pleased to be able to open up more slots for participation. We hope you will join us!