Building Better Boatbuilders

New school meets old school.

Building Better Boatbuilders

In my experience, most of the great boatbuilders I have known in the last 30 years have been self-made sorts. If they earned a degree at all, it might just as well have been for playing the double bass since they all earned their boatbuilding skills hands-on. A day at The Landing School in Kennebunkport, Maine, however, convinced me that the next generation of master boatbuilders might be culled from the classroom.

Instead of paying their dues serving under a boatyard Bligh, students at The Landing School (www.landingschool.edu) can earn a degree in "marine industry technology" or "marine systems technology" — both are 24-month programs. The school was born in a cow barn in 1978. "Our first students' first challenge was shoveling the manure out of the classroom," says Nicole Jacques, director of marketing, with a smile. "We've come a long way!" Now the campus is a neatly organized series of buildings, houses and workshops dedicated to traditional wood and cold-molded and composite construction programs. This mixing of minds is amazing in itself since boatbuilders are a clannish lot. Artisans in wood think of fiberglass laminators as unskilled glue-sniffers, while composite technicians think of woodchucks as folk artists. "It can be a bit competitive," admits Jacques. "But we think that's a good thing."

Each shop is well outfitted and unnaturally tidy. The yards I served in as a young designer had a bit more character — in a Superfund site sort of way. I thought of a few of the boatbuilder characters I had worked with as Jacques explained the school’s strict attendance policies. Students punch in and out on a time clock and must be tidy, sober and ready to work. “Most of our students are highly motivated selfstarters. In fact, we set limits for the amount of overtime they can invest in their projects.” I guess times have changed. In the 1980s racing-sailboat game, a boatbuilder I knew seasoned his creativity with loud rock music and essential herbs, and I’ve known more than one Down East master who took his sundowners at noontime with his lobster roll. Such behavior is not tolerated, explains Jacques, although she admits that a few students always seem to come down with the flu when it’s time to fair a fiberglass plug.

As a young yacht designer, I discovered that Noah was the last boatbuilder to take a boat designer seriously — it can be a difficult relationship. In my service as a “design consultant” for a large builder, I avoided the plant floor or kept my eye out for “falling tools.” Imagine my surprise to find The Landing School has a first-class yacht-design program in the same building and everyone gets along! In fact, several of the design projects have been built on the shop floors. As I admired the 20 neatly organized CAD workstations, I thought of the knotty-plywood drawing board my first boatbuilder boss assigned me. While the school still teaches traditional lofting, students that make it through the intensive 10-month program will also be up to speed on the latest yacht-design software.

Though school seems a far cry from the traditional indentured servitude boatbuilding apprentices once suffered, Jacques insists that the program is no Shangri-La. “Our instructors are patient, but like most boatbuilders they tend to be Type-A perfectionists and like things done a certain way,” Jacques says. “The instructor in our traditional wood program tells students they are allowed to ruin one piece of timber — that’s it!” Design students are allowed just one potentially catastrophic mistake. Some students attend the school to add to their skill set while others arrive straight from the farm. About 80 students earn a diploma each year completing 14 project boats — their work is impressive.

A number of my well-seasoned boatbuilding buddies have groused that kids today just don’t seem willing to pay their dues. Learning the hard way has its advantages, but thanks to programs like The Landing School, a new generation will have more to fall back on than the seat of their pants.