Rocking the Boat's Spurling Skiff Replica

Oct. 10, 2018
Oct. 10, 2018
Oct. 10, 2018
Aug. 21, 2018
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About This Kool Project

Rocking the Boat empowers young people from the South Bronx to develop the self-confidence to set ambitious goals and gain the skills necessary to achieve them. Students work together to build wooden boats, learn to row and sail, and restore local urban waterways, revitalizing their community while creating better lives for themselves. Kids don't just build boats, boats build kids.

Wooden boatbuilding is in Rocking the Boat’s bones; the organization began as a single boatbuilding youth development project in 2001.  While the programs have since expanded to include related program tracks in sailing and environmental science, the heart of its Hunts Point facility is a 6,000 square-foot, fully equipped boatbuilding shop where no fewer than two to three boats are being built or repaired at any one time.

Recently Rocking the Boat was approached by a donor interested in having students restore a small boat built by Arthur “Chummy” Spurling, a well-known boat designer and builder from the Cranberry Isles of Maine.  The original boat, a treasure of Maine’s maritime heritage, was owned for years by the same Down East family.  Unfortunately, it was also just short of repairable.

The boat does, however, present a fantastic opportunity to study and capture this classic design and recreate it piece by piece.  Beginning in March, 2018, the original boat will be precisely measured to create the molds, and some of her beautiful brass hardware has been harvested for eventual installation.  This Spurling Skiff project will be the organization’s 53rd student-built boat.  But the most remarkable part of the project is who will be doing it, and what they will gain in the process.

Rocking the Boat’s Boatbuilding apprentices are high school aged boys and girls from one of the most under-resourced communities in New York City.  Most come to the program with no woodworking experience, let alone any knowledge of traditional wooden boats, and work their way up to the advanced apprentice class by honing technical skills alongside professional traits.  Boatbuilding apprentices graduate from high school with valuable work experience, transferrable skills, and secure post-secondary plans—often in fields they never imagined possible.

The project is also an important piece of wooden boatbuilding preservation and possibly the first time the dimensions of an existing Spurling skiff has been measured and recorded in this way.  As renowned boatbuilder and historian John Gardener urged in his Building Classic Small Craft, “One or more of the Spurling boats should be measured and recorded before they disappear.”

This project is supported by:

RPM Foundation (RPM) is an educational grant-making program of America’s Automotive Trust (AAT).  RPM is funded by collector vehicle and classic boat enthusiasts to serve youth and young adults on their pathways to careers in automotive/marine restoration & preservation along with the long-term interests of the collector vehicle and classic boat communities.  Visit: www.rpm.foundation for more information.

Through a unique grants program, Workforce Development Institute makes investments that lead to workforce development and economic growth.

Sam Huber

Oct. 10, 2018

The Boatbuilding apprentices returned to their construction of a Spurling rowing skiff replica after a brief pause between Rocking the Boat’s summer and fall semesters.  Having completed and set up the boat’s molds by the end of summer, they began in mid-September to build the individual parts that will together form the keel, the boat’s bottom ridge.  Again, they were able to see how accurate measuring and lofting in the early steps pays off.  When the apprentices made exact patterns traced from original keel pieces of the boat, it became clear that some of these wooden parts had become warped over the long life of the skiff, or were, in fact, asymmetrical or imprecise to begin with.  In these cases, the differences could be reconciled against their lofted blueprint measurements and drawings from the beginning of the project.

To form the stem, the sturdy chin of the front bow, they employed one of the liveliest techniques in wooden boatbuilding: steam bending.  In this process, wooden planks and parts are heated in a steam box in the shop until pliable.  Then, with quick coordination, apprentices remove the wooden pieces, bend them around a mold, and fasten them to it before the wood cools and stiffens again.  CJ, in charge of the stem build, found her morale flagging during the process of planing down the 13 planks of white oak to be used.  Working together, the apprentices bent and glued each layer around her curved stem mold.  Once formed, it has the integrity of a single piece of wood.  Holding the first actual completed piece of the boat after months of measuring and prepping she declared, “OK, now I’m into this project!”

Throughout October, the apprentices will continue shaping the keel parts side by side with the originals for inspiration as much as comparison, until they are ready to join them together into the boat’s backbone.

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