To Push Their Boats from Shore

To Push Their Boats from Shore

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The Power Nap is over. The participants stride briskly back into the Chewonki boat shop, put on their respirators, and return to work. For two weeks now, they’ve used glue and fiberglass to join okoume plywood pieces into hand-crafted kayaks, 17’ 8” long and with a beam of a bit over 23”. All six vessels rest upside-down, side-by-side, on saw horses in the soft light of the shop. 

The goal for the day is sanding, and they hum about their boats like raspy, dusty worker bees among the orchids, running their hands along the wood, leaning close to inspect, sanding some more, and moving intently down the hulls to inspect every corner, join and line. 

Ask the 2018 Boatbuilders Expedition participants why they chose to do this and you get back confused looks that say, “isn’t it obvious?”

“You get to build your own boat!” says Abe Lipson from Belmont, Massachusetts. Peter Phipps of  Woodside, California, liked “the idea of taking a journey in something I built. It felt like a way to test my skills…”

Fiona Scribner, a Mainer and the only young woman in this group of six, says, “I was looking for a longish trip…I saw this and thought: I get the adventure but I also learn to make my own boat, and I can keep it!”

“My sisters did this trip,” says Miles Dwight of Newport Beach, California, “and they loved it. It’s a chance to become more confident, to learn things..”

All say that although they had done little or no woodworking before they arrived on July 9, they leapt at the opportunity to build their own boat with their own hands and then paddle it on Maine’s island-studded Penobscot Bay and below the soaring cliffs of Quebec’s Saguenay River. Throughout the five-week program, participants are also exploring their strengths and developing leadership ability and outdoor skills.

Throughout their first two weeks, the Boatbuilders have been hard at work in the Boat Shop. Now and then, however, they’ve been known to catch a Power Nap in the circle of chairs under the big spruces by the Quad. That’s a good time to make your way to the shop to check progress without getting in the way.

It’s the afternoon of Day 11. For the previous 10 days, each member of the group, with help from trip leaders Amy Dorfman and Eric Nathanson, has been building a kayak. Also on deck to guide the work is Bill Thomas, an accomplished Maine designer and maker who created “The Willow” kayak design these students are following and has mentored this program for 11 summers.

“One of the design criteria was that it be a kayak that can be built in a class of beginners, so I tried to back out the complications and still achieve a really good kayak,” says Thomas. Leaders Nathanson and Dorfman will travel in kayaks built by former participants who loved their boats but didn’t have room at home to store them.

Once sanding is done the students will paint their boats, each in her or his unique style (in the past, some kayaks have looked fit for the Henley Royal Regatta; others have tended toward folk art; and a few have sported hot rod flames). On July 30, they will load their vessels on a trailer bound for Stonington, Maine, where they’ll be launched into Penobscot Bay. The group will spend a couple of days exploring the Merchant’s Row archipelago and visit Brooklin’s famous WoodenBoat School to observe and learn. Then back on the road to head much further north to the Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay in eastern Quebec, where they will paddle the Saguenay River fjord, known for breathtaking cliffs and abundant wildlife including Beluga whales.

But all that is still a dream. Today: sanding. “They are working really hard,” says Dorfman. “This is not complicated work, but it’s also not easy. Boatbuilders accomplish a lot. After any wilderness trip, you have a lot to be proud of. You gain self-confidence and contentment with yourself. Chewonki Boatbuilders finish up with all that plus their own kayak to take home with them.”

“They are really excited by their boats,” Nathanson agrees. “We’re getting a lot done And we’re also having a good time. The other night, we went into the Wood Shop and started thinking about how they want to decorate their boats, mixing paints, looking at stencils, while listening to some old dance music and dancing around…”

Spending their first two weeks on Chewonki Neck while Camp Chewonki for Boys is in full swing is a Boatbuilders Expedition idiosyncracy. The group creates their own world-within-a-world, establishing a base camp at Hoyt’s Point and enjoying the freedom to make a dash to Boothbay Harbor to inspect a replica Viking boat. They earn special status in the Chewonki summer community, mingling with staff at some meals and becoming  familiar, even god- and goddess-like, characters in campers’ eyes.

Dorfman, who also co-led the Boatbuilders Expedition last summer, appreciates “being able to answer a lot of the questions and shape the experience somewhat” this year. New twists included a two-day paddling trip before participants began constructing their kayaks. It was a good chance to learn paddling and camping skills and “get a sense of the context for their work,” she says.

Two of the 2018 Boatbuilders are from Maine; two are from California; one is from Ohio; one is from Massachusetts. Four are alumni of previous Chewonki programs; two are newbies, but both of those have siblings who are alums. Boatbuilder Bill Thomas always loves the mix. “It’s different every time,” he says. “The participants are different, the leaders are different…It’s not just the kids who grow; the leaders and I grow, too.”

The Boatbuilders Expedition will end where the Saguenay River meets the great St. Lawrence River. There, these six young boatbuilders will haul their kayaks from the water with full appreciation for why they spent long hours glueing, nailing, sanding, and painting. On future adventures, each time they dip their paddles in the water to push their boats from shore, memories of this summer will glide with them.

2018 Chewonki Boatbuilders Expedition

Leaders: Amy Dorfman and Eric Nathanson

Master boatbuilder and teacher: Bill Thomas

Participants:  Miles Dwight, George Haffenreffer, Abe Lipson, Nicholas Nordell, Peter Phipps, and Fiona Scribner