SEARSPORT, Maine — Erin Kilpatrick of Searsport never spent much time doing woodworking or using power tools — but that changed in January, when the 16-year-old sophomore enrolled in a unique boatbuilding class offered at Searsport District High School.
Over the last semester, Kilpatrick and nine other classmates took a stack of lumber and slowly, carefully turned it into two graceful shellback dinghies that they successfully launched this week at the Searsport Town Dock.
“Two of my older brothers took the class before me,” she said. “They recommended it because it was a really fun, hands-on class. And it was really awesome. I’m not sure that I will be a woodworker or anything like that, but it was really fun experiencing it. I never thought I’d do anything like that. And I made a boat.”
It was the sixth year that Troy boat builder Greg Rossel had taught students at the high school how to build the shellback dinghies, and the third year that his class was able to use the Hamilton Learning Center at the Penobscot Marine Museum as a dedicated space to do the often messy work. The students more than rose to the occasion, he said.
“We were able to do a lot more this year. It was just a really good class, and we were able to fit in more things,” Rossel said. “I had to make sure I had plenty of stuff to do. They’d finish a class and they’d want more. They did well.”
The class is advertised as a “practical laboratory” for students to learn the geometry of boat building, applied physics and much more, according to the affable boat builder. This year, they learned about the organic chemistry of epoxy, a resin commonly used in boat building, studied navigation and visited the Front Street Shipyard in Belfast to learn about the boat building industry.
“It’s really the practical application of the things they may have learned in school,” Rossel said. “They use all of it. They have to work in a team. You have to demand quality — you can’t fink out on that. Other people are depending on them. The boats have to be seaworthy, and what’s more, the students get to be the first ones to go out in them.”
The launch of the two 11-foot dinghies on Thursday afternoon was very successful, he said. The students rowed them around the harbor in the sunshine and sailed them with the sails they also had made.
“They were having a ball,” Rossel said.
The seaworthiness of the dinghies was never in question, according to Kilpatrick.
“I was confident that the boats were going to float,” she said. “But I was not very confident in my rowing skills. My first time around, I almost crashed into the pier.”
Despite that near-hit, she enthusiastically recommends the class to other students.
“If anyone gets the chance to do it, definitely do,” she said of learning to build a boat. “It was very fun.”