The innovative program began in September 1995, when a local school principal collaborated with a museum contact to teach a group of middle school students how to build a boat. That boat was launched in spring 1996, and with it, the Discovery Boatbuilding Program took off. Today, the museum partners with South Bristol School, West Bath School and Woolwich Central School, teaching children from fifth to eighth grade.
“It’s a big commitment for a school, because the students spend an entire day here each week throughout the school year,” says Kurt Spiridakis, Director of Watercraft and Traditional Skills, who has been with the program for 10 years. “Each school comes a different day of the week and is responsible for building two boats.”
During the first semester, students learn about basic woodworking techniques, wood technology and three-dimensional thinking. Each student builds increasingly difficult projects to hone their skills, including a three-legged stool, a toolbox, and a half model of the boat they’ll be constructing. The young people build a 12-foot, flat-bottom skiff during the second semester; then, on graduation day, the students launch and row their boats in front of their entire school.
According to Spiridakis, the boats are traditional Maine designs, inspired by the history of the area.
“We use the same native species used by Maine boatbuilders for hundreds of years,” he says. “They had to use what wood they had available, so we do the same.”
The three semi-rural school districts are anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour away from the museum in Bath, in a region where schooners were built for two centuries. Some students are descended from those who built the wooden ships.
“It’s their heritage, but they may not know anything about it,” Spiridakis explains. “Through our program, they understand the value of working with their hands as well as their minds. They learn to solve problems, and while mistakes will be made, they learn that those mistakes can be fixed with time and effort.”
He also noted that the program serves two additional purposes: It promotes the uniqueness of Maine, and it serves as an engine for economic development.
“Midcoast Maine has one of the largest concentration of wooden boatbuilders in the United States, from one guy in his yard to Bath Iron Works, which employs thousands,” he says. “Although it may be a dying art from a broader perspective, wooden shipbuilding is thriving here to some extent.
“Now, we’re teaching middle school kids, so we’re not focused primarily on job skills,” he acknowledges. “But critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, confidence — these are skills that will serve them well all their lives.”
Spiridakis observes that it’s always a struggle to raise funds for the boatbuilding program, so the Maine Maritime Museum is grateful for its 2016 BlueFuture grant from West Marine.
“The funds will pay for the materials we need to build the stools, toolboxes and boat models, and the materials we need to build the boats themselves,” he says. “Programs like this are so important, because the kids see tangible results. They learn what you can do with your hands outside of a classroom.”
To learn more about the Maine Maritime Museum, visit http://www.mainemaritimemuseum.org. And for information about the Discovery Boatbuilding Program, click “Learn” in the top navigation bar.