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Students cheering on their way to the launch.
Students cheering on their way to the launch.

Champlain Valley students turn a boat shop into a classroom

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A group of Vermont high school students has been hard at work since January building a wooden long boat by hand. They collected the materials and built the boat piece by piece, gaining skills and confidence as they went.

The program is a collaboration between the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and program called Diversified Occupations. The program offers kids who struggle in the classroom a different approach to learning.

Sarah Harris spent a couple of days with the students and their teachers and has our story.

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When I walk into the boat shop at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, I immediately notice how at ease the students are among tools, wood and machines. Building a longboat by hand takes precision and specialized skills, and it’s clear that these kids have learned a lot.

Christian Diaz is tall and thin, with dark hair and an easy smile. He points to different parts of the long boat and tells me how they were made. 

"Well my favorite part was the scarf jointing," he says. "Scarfing is to make it smaller and combine into one big plank. In the beginning it was hard and then I got used to it and it turned easy."

The students are the nearing the end of a 5 month project. The boat’s almost done. It’s 32 feet long, with gorgeous interlocking wooden ribs and these artfully made seats. Today’s task is taking the boat off its perch and turning it over.

Nick Patch is the lead instructor for the boat building program. He says the students have made major progress. "It’s called free the boat day, it’s a big day because this boat started on this strong back as nothing more than one piece of oak and now it’s the first time it’ll be off of the mold and truly a boat," he said.    

The students line up on either side of the boat, and Nick gives them directions. "Then what we’re gonna do is lift it hopefully only a couple inches off the strong back and carefully walk it over that way and just set it down," he explains. Everybody takes hold of the boat, bends their knees, and prepares to lift. 

"Alright…ready and lift!" says Nick. "Walk gently —everybody alright? OK now lower it, watch your fingers, excellent!" The move is finished, and everybody applauds. 

The students in Diversified Occupations have a wide array of learning and developmental differences. Their teacher Polly Wilson says the boat building program allows them to learn by doing. "I think experiential education for these guys, well for anybody, is the best way to learn. Get your hands on it and work it," she says. 

Students Brady Reel and Will Philips say that the boat shop is a good learning environment for them.

"I’d rather not sit in a classroom," says Brady. 

"It’s good to get out of the classroom and work on boats like these," adds Will. 

There are a couple of tasks left: sanding, painting and detail work. It takes these kids a week and a half. The following Friday is launch day and by then, the boat is even more beautiful, painted with a dark blue hull and orange trim. 

There’s a big crowd milling around the Maritime Museum as the kids get ready to launch their boat in the water. Parents, teachers, classmates and friends have all trooped down for the occasion. The boat’s being towed on a trailer and the kids are riding inside. A bagpiper plays just behind them, and everybody parades down to the shore for the launch. 

The crowd clusters at the shoreline as students line up to give speeches about what’s been like to build the boat. I catch up with 15-year-old Kiana Corkham just before she takes the microphone.

"I feel pretty good about the boat, it’s finally done which means no more hard work labor building. I think it’s pretty great," she says.

"Do you think it’ll float?" I ask. 

"I hope to god it does!" she replies with a smile. 

After the speeches, the kids put on life jackets and clamber into the boat. Their instructor gives it a firm push, and they’re off into the harbor.  The crowd claps as the kids row around, grinning. After all, they started from molds and oak and spent five months building what’s a now a beautiful and seaworthy vessel.

Diaz still can’t believe they did it. "I’m in shock that it still floated. I’m proud and in shock," he said. 

But nobody else seems surprised that the boat turned out so well. Once they’re back on shore, it’s time for a round of pictures, hugs and a celebratory cake in honor of the students’ hard work.

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