Building their own boats Learning: Students at the John Gardner School use clamps, planers, band saws and lathes to transform planks of wood into floating dreams.

July 31, 1996|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

The smell of damp wood and sea water and the mystique of making something out of nothing lure people to the small warehouse in the heart of Annapolis' old fishing community.

At the John Gardner School of Boatbuilding, students wrestle with C-clamps, planers, band saws and lathes as they transform planks into their floating dreams and keep alive the art of building wooden boats.

Whether they are longing to sail into retirement, are students of the maritime industry or are granddaughters of famous builders of wooden yachts, most walk in as novices. But all leave feeling just a bit more seaworthy.

"I knew zero, nothing, zip," said Richard Donnelly, pleased after taking a spin on College Creek in the Poston 17, a 17-foot racing rowboat he helped four other people in his class build. "The first question I asked was, 'What? We make the oars?' I couldn't believe it.

"Once you get into it, though, the juices start flowing. And then finding time to work on your boat becomes easier. What was just a few hours after work on Tuesdays and Thursdays quickly became all-day Saturday things. There's just a lot of satisfaction in it," said Donnelly, an Annapolis accountant.

It's a craft that requires much patience and plenty of time. Donnelly's group of five completed the boat in 80 hours. For a single person trying to complete the task alone, it may take several months.

Take Andrew Wallace, a 27-year-old from Maine who is building his own 17-foot Rangely lake boat.

Amid wood shavings, sawdust and varnish, Wallace examines each board carefully as he fits it to the stem of the boat, still in its skeletal stages. With boiling water, he wraps one end of a white cedar plank in a steaming-hot towel. As the wood softens, he will twist and bend it to the curve of the boat. Clamps will hold the shape of the bend until Wallace is ready to attach the plank to the boat's keel, or backbone.

This is more than a hobby for Wallace, who hopes to start his own boat-building shop someday.

"I had basically done a lot of other types of woodworking on doors, windows and furniture," Wallace said. "I failed at all of it and got fired from every job. So I went to this school to learn.

"Right now, I can make any kind of mistakes on my boat. But when it comes time to build for other people, it'll be perfect. Wooden boat building is all about the past and what's in the future."

About 22 years ago, when the Trumpy Yacht Yard in Annapolis -- once a leading designer and builder of wooden yachts for the rich and famous -- fell victim to plastic technology and closed, John Trumpy Jr. declared that the art of building wooden boats was "simply dying."

What seemed like a death knell for the industry proved premature. With magazines such as WoodenBoat and more than a dozen schools around the country teaching how to build wooden boats, interest has grown.

Barely a year old, the nonprofit Gardner school was started by Clark Poston, a 35-year-old master boat builder who trained at the Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum in Connecticut.

Poston is president and owner of the school, which is named for his mentor, a man known as the dean of American small craft.

"Building and using small wooden boats is part of our heritage," Gardner once said, "something to cherish and hold onto, something worth doing that our forebears did that we can still do, something to enjoy while we still have it to enjoy."

Those words have deep meaning for Sigrid Trumpy, granddaughter of John Trumpy Sr., who designed motor yachts for presidents and corporate millionaires.

Sawing and bending each piece of wood into a 14-foot wherry designed by her grandfather in 1939 allows the Annapolis woman to reconnect with childhood memories and her family's heritage. The wherry she is building is one of a handful of Trumpy designs in existence.

"We had a boat like this when I was a kid," said the Naval Academy museum curator, 50, remembering rowing trips out on Harness Creek. "But it was taken from our home and stored at the boatyard in 1962, where a fire broke out. That boat was destroyed in the fire. I guess this is my way of bringing some of that back to life."

Trumpy said she knew little about boat building until she took a class offered by Poston at St. John's College in 1993. "I wouldn't have been able to do it without Clark and the school," she said.

The Gardner school offers classes to adults in group settings or individually. Tuition varies depending on the size of the class and the size and type of boat.

The school also encourages family members to take a course on building Penguins, 12-foot international racing sailboats.

"A lot of people just leave it to dreaming at night," said John Pasley, 54, an Annapolis amateur boat builder for 40 years who will teach a class at the Gardner school in the fall. "What does a boat mean to some people? It symbolizes a sense of freedom and the chance to get away from it all."

Poston, who has taught the trade at collegiate, vocational and adult amateur levels for the past 14 years in the United States and Britain, said, "I guess you could just plop down some money and buy yourself a boat, but there is nothing in the world like taking a slab of a tree and turning it into something so beautiful. That's going to mean a lot more than buying it."

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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