the approach

For the last 3 weeks I’ve been connecting with a group of teenagers as they learn about water, boats and the making of boats. The Milwaukee Community Sailing Center asked me to help in a summer program along with a group called Teen Approach. I was to provide what was needed to have the young people build and then ride in a boat. I had done a similar workshop last year.

I was to work with the teens and volunteers and a staff member from the Teen Approach program in the afternoons for 7 days. During the mornings instructors from Milwaukee Community Sailing Center (MCSC) taught the kids how to sail out on Lake Michigan.

I considered several designs and chose to stay with the design of the boats we built last year, a design called the “6 Hour Canoe”. An optimistic name that provides that sometimes critical ingredient needed in any challenging venture.

I prepared several pieces the week before the class so that the project could flow smoothly and be accomplished within the short time frame. We initially started with 6 students, various scheduling conflicts winnowed the core group to 4 by the time the boat was launched.

MCSC provided a shop space for us to work and this was how far we got by the end of the 3rd day.

The gunwales as well as the chine logs were clamped into place with dry wall screws as the epoxy thickened with cotton fibers that forms the adhesive we used through-out sets up. This meant a lot of screws were driven in and a lot of screws were removed. “Not the screws again!”

Soon the boat builders were fitting the bottom onto the upturned hull.

Once the outline had been traced the cutting could begin.

At this point we were down to 5 builders and they each took a turn using the jig saw while the others held the work piece in place, offered advice or took some time to absorb what it was they were doing.

The boat has nice lines. The boat builders sealed any exposed end grain with epoxy resin and filled any gaps and all screw holes with an epoxy filler. Lots of sanding brought the boat to a smooth enough surface for painting.

Sanding was one of the steps that the builders seemed to enjoy the most. Bending in and gluing the gunwales was an early step, a dramatic step and a somewhat tense step. They seemed relieved once the process became predictable. They also started taking ownership of the project, realizing that they were close to accomplishing quite a feat.

Soon the major, local media showed up…

…and the builders found an eloquence that was very refreshing, but not really surprising as they were being interviewed.

More paint!

As one coat dried I took a poll to see how many of them thought their boat would float. Four out of five maintained the optimism we started with. The fifth relished his outsider position for a short while before joining in to form a consensus.

There was some mixed opinions however when I asked them why it would float. Gravity was considered, the fact that wood floats was a popular view point, but there was a certain amount of doubt about the answer. Another break in the action as the paint dried allowed an opportunity to fill a large bucket with water and get down to some serious experimentation. We were able to discover the concept of displacement by using a shop made measuring device (a scrap of wood and a pencil) and we were able to witness a small plastic tub float until filled with water. The plastic tub, quickly known as a boat, was able to carry quite a number of stones without sinking but displacing ever more water, until of course the large rock appeared. It’s always good to check for the limits.

The force of the displaced water on our plastic boat could easily be felt and soon issues regarding the difference of weight and mass were being bandied about until another consensus was agreed upon about the weight of the water displaced and the weight of any vessel. OK, we could feel safe that the boat would float based on more than a democratic vote over the matter.

Now, the really important part needed to be resolved. Two parts actually, the boat’s name and it’s decoration.

The name was decided to be “Teen Approach”, the name of the summer program they attended, but also there was some mention of their own approach. Purple waves were added by some drawing an outline in pencil, another darkening the outline with a marker, a painter wielding a big brush and another with a small.

Screw eyes were added to attach light line that would hold in inflatable racing buoys that worked well for the additional flotation required by those who happened to have been sitting behind some desk indoors while the colloquium on displacement was being held. Tomorrow would be the launch.

The crew had dwindled to four by that time.


…these seasoned shipwrights had brought along a contingent from the rest of the Teen Approach program to witness the launch and provide some labor for hauling the boat to the water.

The good ship was brought to the water.

And launched!

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing -absolutely nothing- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing…”

-Kenneth Grahame

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