Setting an Even Keel
Who says they don't make them like they used to? Not the faculty and staff at the Great Lakes Boat Building School.
A hull under construction
Photographs by Narayan Mahon
How often do you hear, “You can’t find a good [insert quality crafted item] anymore”?
Nonsense, say the faculty and students of the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville.
Nestled in a corner of the eastern Upper Peninsula, the Les Cheneaux Islands straddle the Lake Huron shore. The area offers an abundant amount of natural beauty, enticing solitude, and a longstanding nautical heritage.
The locals of this hidden gem are definitely proud of the nautical heritage, as evidenced by the numerous marinas and boat shops scattered among the 36 islands. The tradition goes back to 1923, when Eugene Mertaugh set up his Chris Craft dealership in Hessel. Mertaugh was granted the very first franchise by the Algonac-based manufacturer.
The community also hosts an antique Wooden Boat Show, an annual event that’s been held every August since 1978.
But in 2005, community leaders Paul Wilson and Bob Smith noticed something conspicuously absent — a school specializing in the art of traditional and contemporary wooden boat construction. In fact, no such institution existed in the Great Lakes region.
The two formed a committee to organize fundraising, secure a site, and hire a full-time staff. After purchasing a prime waterfront location in the town of Cedarville, construction began on the Great Lakes Boat Building School, an attractive building designed in the traditional boathouse style.
Left: Students finish with the skills to get work at a boat shop or open their own. Right: A shipwright's tool chest.
The first classes were held in September 2007 after seasoned boat builder Pat Mahon was hired as program director and designed the comprehensive, yet focused curriculum.
Mahon is the personification of learning a trade through the apprenticeship model. Growing up in Arizona, he realized his calling at an early age by working at boatyards in England, costal Maine, and Washington state — where he ran his own shop for more than 10 years.
The new students “often come to us with minimal — if any — woodworking skills to begin their education with,” Mahon says. The first project students tackle is construction of a “shipwright’s tool chest” — a wooden box built to precise specifications to store personal tools.
This prepares the students to begin learning the fundamentals of wooden boat joinery. Techniques include the carvel method, characterized by a smooth hull with planks meeting at the edges, and the lapstrake technique, where each plank overlaps the last, reminiscent of ancient Viking ships. Several classic styles of boats can be built using these methods, including skiffs, runabouts, and dinghies.
Later, students learn the more contemporary approach of epoxy resin joinery. Both the traditional and modern methods are used in the trade today.
Mahon continues to be amazed at the students’ willingness to learn by way of the traditional apprenticeship model. “Boat building is a trade, which still relies very heavily on hand tools, and this is where we start,” he says. “Even if a student has prior woodworking experience, they may have never used a chisel or a hand plane. We start at this very basic level and go from there — gradually moving up to power tools.”
About half the students end their education after the first year, receiving a Comprehensive Boat Building Certificate. Many student projects are sold by the school to raise funds.
Second-year students are given more ambitious projects, such as small-sized yachts or other commissioned projects. Students continue the apprenticeship model to learn about yacht joinery, plumbing and electrical systems, engine installation, and vessel safety requirements. Bulkhead and interior furniture installation are also covered.
Recently, students began constructing a “pilot gig” commissioned by the U.S. Navy to assist in training sailors on the USS Constitution. A pilot gig is a classic wooden rowing boat of 18th century English design, which was originally used to ferry a pilot familiar with the local conditions from shore to an incoming vessel. Today, pilot gigs are commonly used for sport, but crew members on the Constitution (which is still a commissioned U.S. Navy ship) must become familiar with all 18th century sailing methods.
Other interesting commissions have included a replica of a John Hacker 1923 racing boat and a reproduction of an early 20th century launch for the Inland Water Route Historical Society, a group dedicated to preserving a network of interlocking rivers and lakes throughout the northern Lower Peninsula once used by Native Americans as a trading route.
Left: Traditional woodworking skills are the first step to building a traditional boat. Right: Students enter a traditional apprenticeship.
Students finishing the second year receive a Certificate of Completion, plus the confidence and skills they need to embark on a successful maritime career, either as an employee at one of hundreds of boat shops nationwide or as an entrepreneur.
Edward Greiner took the latter path and is now the owner of Libertycall Boatworks in Grand Haven, where he offers repair services and accepts commissions to construct new vessels.
A member of the class of 2013, Greiner came to the school after a 27-year career in the U.S. Navy as a sonar technician. In between classes, he also became certified as a marine electrical technician through the American Boat and Yacht Council.
“The education I received was invaluable — I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Greiner says. “Not only did the staff provide a quality instruction, they took a personal interest in each of us. If a student needs help finding housing or with securing financial aid, they’re always willing to lend a hand.”
Despite its short history, GLBBS has a loyal network of alumni. Some of them return to guest lecture or mentor students.
Students may also pursue a traditional college degree in conjunction with their time at GLBBS. The school has entered into agreements with other institutions. After completing their first year, students can transfer to North Central Michigan College in Petoskey where they take roughly one year of complementary courses in mathematics, CAD design, and liberal arts, resulting in an associate degree in wooden boat building. Those interested in a career in naval architecture can go even further and obtain a bachelor’s degree in applied technology through Eastern Michigan University.
The school also caters to “weekend” boat builders — holding 20 different one-week workshops during the summer. The most popular are the “Build Your Own Boat” classes where students assemble a kayak from a kit of precut components. Specific styles are the Skin on Frame, the Shearwater, and the Wood Duck kayaks.
Other “summer school” offerings include the Artisan Workshop Series — marine finishes and finishing, wood tool making, and waterfront photography.
“Our school has become a real source of pride to the Les Cheneaux community,” says Bud McIntire, the school’s director of student services. “In addition to our symbolic importance, we also strive to be a resource to the local maritime community by offering technical consulting to local boat shops and by presenting seminars.”
The community benefits financially, as well. “During the decade of our existence, our school has contributed approximately $5 million to the local economy,” McIntire says, “a trend we see continuing.”
The Great Lakes Boat Building School, 906-484-1081. Or visit glbbs.org.