He’s Built 91 Kayaks at Chewonki and Counting

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He’s Built 91 Kayaks at Chewonki and Counting

“Kids these days,” says boatbuilding instructor Bill Thomas, referring to the oft-used lament about youth. “Adults wouldn’t say that if they got to work with the kids I do with each summer. They would be hopeful. These kids are remarkable.”

photo by Bill Thomas

The Chewonki boat shop is a large, unassuming structure, usually speckled with moss and twigs. Situated between our board and batten maintenance facility and just over the hill from Salt Marsh Farm, it’s inconspicuous and out of the way from Camp hubbub. But, if you were to step through one of the large bay openings at the beginning of July, you’d find this modest structure is its own center of activity for a small group of teenagers: our Boatbuilders Saguenay Sea Kayak expedition. Each intensely focuses on the task at hand– joining, waterproofing, and finishing an 18-foot plywood kayak. They have to be because they have just two weeks to build before heading out for a two-and-a-half-week kayaking journey in Central Quebec. Editors note, our 2021 group traveled the rugged Atlantic Coastline from Stonington, Maine back to Wiscasset due to international travel restrictions.

Photo by Bill Thomas

From morning until dark, the teens sand, glue, and varnish. They share easy conversation and often chuckle but rarely break their pace. Most have no experience in carpentry, let alone ocean kayaking. Instead, a shared purpose animates them: the desire to learn, a drive to experience the outdoors, and the knowledge that they can’t do so alone. 

Photo by Bill Thomas

At the center of this great activity is Thomas. A self-described “dyslexic kid,” Thomas grew up in the Carolinas in the 1970s. He struggled with schools unequipped to teach students with learning differences and instead found enjoyment in woodworking. Halfway through college, Thomas took a gap year to build houses and never re-enrolled. He migrated to finish carpentry, woodworking, remodeling, and eventually started making small watercraft from his start in construction.

Photo by Bill Thomas

Growing up in Appalachia, Thomas loved to paddle the region’s many rivers and mountain lakes. In the mid-1980s, a friend lent him an early, plastic Aqua-Terra kayak to take for a spin. Recreational kayaking was still a new phenomenon in the United States at that time, and the boat was heavy and difficult to navigate. Still, he loved it. “This is the thing,” he recalls thinking, “But, this is not the boat.” 

Photo by Bill Thomas

The next step for someone like Thomas was evident, and he soon was building a kit kayak designed by John Lockwood, an influential kayak designer in the 1980s and founder of Pygmy Kayaks, the first kayak kit company. Marine-grade plywood, called Okoume, was becoming more widely available at the time, and it was a relatively easy and affordable material to work with compared to expensive hardwoods. But Thomas was not entirely satisfied with the boat. What if he could make it a bit prettier? Or, a little faster and more stable? Was there a way to achieve a similar result in fewer steps? A new company (and boat – the Willow) was born, and Thomas began teaching across the country, starting with WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, ME.

As a rule, Chewonki programs and expeditions are led by our own staff, but Thomas is a notable exception. He was tapped to help with boat builders in 2008 by Greg Shute, now our Vice President of Land and Waters, who wanted to redesign the program. Although we have great outdoor guides, the boats which campers produced were cumbersome and often leaked, and it was difficult to find the right carpentry instructor year after year. Shute invited Thomas to visit Chewonki along with his Willow, and the sleek plywood kayak made an impression. A beautiful boat and the designer comes with it? Yes, please. Thomas returned that summer in his Westfalia Camper to join a team of two Chewonki expedition leaders and a group of five eager pupils.

Photo by Bill Thomas

Since this time, Thomas has helped build ninety-one boats at Chewonki with teenagers from all over the country, and his Westy (now a Promaster Van) is a summer fixture. “It’s just wonderful,” he says, “I feel very much part of the community even though my involvement each year is small. I’ve taught at twenty different venues, but I’ve never encountered an institution so committed to reflection and growth as Chewonki.”

Photo by Bill Thomas

Thomas says that what makes the Chewonki experience exceptional is that it’s not just about building a boat, it’s about reflecting on how you live your life. “You can approach everything like a craftsman,” he says. “You want to do the best that’s reasonable, the best you can.”

Photo by Bill Thomas

Boatbuilders attracts kids from different backgrounds, and Thomas appreciates the way it erases differences and builds bonds. “If someone is willing to show up, camp for five weeks, spend 8-10 hours a day building a boat, and then paddle hundreds of miles, it doesn’t really matter if you got a scholarship or not,” he says.

Photo by Bill Thomas

If boatbuilders is a leveling experience, it must be a rising tide along with a strong, favorable wind. No one leaves the five-week expedition without gaining something significant – like new skills, once-in-a-lifetime outdoor experiences, incredible friendships, and insights on life. Thanks for everything you do to make our boatbuilders program exceptional, Bill. We’re looking forward to your return next summer.

Photo by Bill Thomas