SEARSPORT, Maine — One at a time, on a recent weekday at noontime, a handful of older adult volunteers filtered into the quiet workshop of the Hamilton Learning Center at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Anticipation hung in the air as the group — four men and one woman — slipped dusty work aprons over their heads and tied the strings behind them.
Hand tools for woodworking — planes, chisels, mallets, screwdrivers — were neatly organized along the wall. Large worktables held strips of high-grade marine plywood and more tools. A bandsaw stood in one corner. Two wooden forms held the upside-down beginnings of a couple of small wooden boats — graceful, 11-foot sailing dinghies designed by the late Joel White.
Promptly at noon, a yellow school bus pulled up outside. Out spilled 10 sophomore geometry students from nearby Searsport District High School, along with their teacher, Kyle Kuvaja, who teaches an elective class called The Geometry of Boatbuilding.
“It’s showtime,” one of the volunteers called, and the action began.
The teenagers trooped through the door, donned their own work aprons, and crowded around one of the big work tables, with the volunteers looking over their shoulders. Master boat-builder Greg Rossel of the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, who heads up the collaborative project between the high school and the Penobscot Marine Museum, led a quick math lesson in measurement and perspective, using a graphic tool he called “the incredible diminishing pyramid” to illustrate.
Then the students picked up their eye goggles and earplugs and split into groups of twos and threes, each assigned to one of the volunteers.
Getting to work
The boat-building collaborative in Searsport is in its sixth year and is seen by some as a precursor to a proposed magnet school for the marine trades. Students enroll in Kuvaya’s class as a hands-on alternative to the standard geometry curriculum. They spend half the school year in the high school classroom.
“Then they come in here for the second half to learn the practical applications and gain a better understanding of the concepts they’ve been learning in math class,” Kuvaya said.
Each session in the workshop starts with a short lesson in mathematics, chemistry, physics, navigation or other topic related to the boat-building process. The students also learn about the marine heritage of their hometown and other cultural aspects of the seafaring world.
Two different groups of volunteers come in to help each week — one Tuesdays and one Thursdays, with a mashup of whoever is available on alternate Fridays.
On this day, at one of the big tables, Pete Jenkins, 69, a retired industrial arts teacher from Prospect, supervised the measuring, marking and chiseling of a tapered rabbet, or recess, along the edge of a plywood piece for the side of one of the boats.
“I haven’t actually done this before, so I’m just learning, too,” Jenkins confided to his students, eliciting smiles.
Retired Unity College professor Gerry Saunders, 66, helped his group use the bandsaw safely to rough-cut a garboard — the curved, bottom-most plank of the boat’s hull.
“It’s better to cut it a little big,” he cautioned, speaking above the sharp din of the saw. “Then we’ll take our planes and make it match perfectly to the line.”
Working at one of the boat forms, economist and family caregiver Lora Mills, 54, of Belfast showed her students how to measure and mark the one-piece bottom of the dinghy for gluing.
“We need to attach it to to the transom, the frame and the stem,” she explained, wielding an old combination square and a flat carpenter’s pencil.
Dan Merrill, 62, a retired industrial arts teacher from Stockton Springs, worked at the other boat form, helping students drill evenly spaced pilot holes through the garboard plank and into the side of the boat bottom. Once the wood pieces were epoxied, he explained, waxed screws would hold them tightly together until the adhesive dried.
“Then we’ll back the screws out, fill the holes with matchsticks and putty and sand it all smooth,” he said.
At a metal table loaded with metal cans and glass bottles, retired software developer Rick Fitzsimmons, 68, of Belfast instructed his group to wear latex gloves and paper masks as they mixed the epoxy.
“The reason you’ve got to wear a mask is that this stuff” — a fine, cottony fiber used to thicken the adhesive — “floats around in the air, and if it gets in your lungs it’ll be there the rest of your life,” he said. The students’ eyes widened behind their goggles.
Classroom teacher Kuvaja circulated, taking notes and lending a hand as needed. Students are evaluated on their participation as well as on written and oral presentations of the material covered during the workshop sessions, he said.
The beehive of activity in the workshop continued for about two hours. Rossel was everywhere, keeping each group on task, fielding questions and watching the clock. At 2 p.m., they all started cleaning up. At 2:15, the bus arrived and the students departed as quickly as they had arrived, leaving the workshop abruptly empty.
“It’s fast and it’s furious, and then they’re gone,” Lora Mills said in the sudden quiet.
The value of ‘messing about in boats’
“The program would not exist without these volunteers,” Rossel said. “They bring incredible value to the class. They all want the students to learn. They like the kids. They like the boats. They’re natural teachers.”
In addition to the applied lessons of science and math, Rossel said students in the class reap the benefits of learning about tools and materials and the satisfaction of completing a complex, handworked project as part of a team.
Each class completes two boats, including painting them and fitting them out with sails and oars. The boats will be sold at the end of the school year for $3,500 each, and the money returned to the program for materials, tools and other expenses.
For the volunteers, the time spent in Rossel’s museum workshop is an opportunity to stay connected to their communities, engage their minds and hands and share their expertise with young people.
“For some of these students, learning to work with new adults is a real challenge,” said Mills, who has two teenagers of her own and arranges for someone else to have lunch with her 92-year-old father on the days she volunteers. “It’s good for them to have a woman in this group, and it’s really good for them to learn to interact with a variety of adults.”
The workshop environment also challenges the volunteers’ personal growth.
“I’ve become more patient,” Rick Fitzsimmons, a self-described “type A-plus” personality, said. “I’ve learned to let the mistakes happen because that’s how the kids learn. Early on, that was really hard for me.”
But to be clear, these volunteers also love their boats. Most have taken classes in boat-building, through the WoodenBoat School or elsewhere, and use the educational program at the museum as a way to keep their oars in, so to speak, during the long winter months.
“There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” Gerry Saunders proclaimed, quoting a favorite line from Kenneth Grahame’s novel “The Wind in the Willows.” It’s a sentiment shared by boat lovers and hobbyists everywhere, including this group of volunteers, who pass their love of small craft on to the young people they mentor each week.