Where tradition meets technology
Posted on 01 August 2010
Written by Eric Sorensen
The Landing School covers all facets of boatbuilding, from plank-on-frame to fiberglass composites.
After a visit to The Landing School in Arundel, Maine, I, like most first-time visitors, came away thoroughly impressed with the school, the staff and the students.
The Landing School was founded in 1978 by John Burgess and Cricket Tupper - with eight students the first year - operating out of a cow barn. (There are still cows, complete with barn, pasture and enough of a continually replenished fuel source to power a small power plant, next door.) The fully accredited school has obviously been a success, recognizing and supplying a market demand. This year, 85 full-time students were taught by 10 instructors in four separate boatbuilding and repair programs.
One thing is very clear at the outset: students come to The Landing School to work hard and learn a lot in a very short period. In fact, they're encouraged to forget about seeing much of their family and friends for the time they're at the school. It is, in many ways, a two- to three-year curriculum crammed into a nine-month period.
While the pace is intensive, the students don't have to rely entirely on self-motivation on a day-to-day basis. Instructors keep the pressure on with assignments, and anyone who misses even a day or two of class during a single quarter is likely to be asked to leave the program. Accordingly, attrition rates are occasionally high. As with any demanding course of study, not everyone turns out to have the capacity or will to stick it out.
The quality of the students who do stick it out is high, and it's got to be a character-builder. They tend to be highly motivated. Some are recent high school graduates, but the average age is 28, and some are transitioning to boatbuilding as a second career. Many already have bachelor's degrees and a good number have master's degrees. One of this year's students is a surgeon who shifted career paths in favor of learning how to work on boats by taking the systems course. Let's have a look at the programs and the results.
The Wood Construction course teaches traditional lapstrake and plank-on-frame construction, as well as wood composite (cold-molded) boatbuilding in the classroom, on the shop floor and visiting other builders on field trips. The traditional-wood students learn drafting and lofting in the classroom, and they form boatbuilding teams out on the shop floor, each of which builds two boats a year.
The first half of the year they build a lapstrake, or clinker-built, Beach Pea peapod bonded with epoxy. In the second half, they build a similar design called the Downeast Peapod using carvel plank-on-frame construction with red cedar planking over steam-bent white oak ribs fastened with bronze fasteners. Sipo - an African mahogany - is used in the laminated stems since it's strong and stiff yet relatively easy to work with.
The students start by building molds to give the hulls their shape, eventually outfitting the boats with hardware, wiring and rigging, and then prime and paint them to a high-quality appearance.
The final chore - someone has to do it - is launching and sea-trialing the boats, which has to be gratifying for the hardworking students. There's probably no job in the world more rewarding than the process and result of building a fine wooden boat, and much of the joy is to be found along the way - the smell of cedar shavings, seeing a set of one-dimensional lines turn into molds covered with ribands and gradually taking the shape of a lovely, perfectly proportioned, three-dimensional hull. Honest work and sweat create an object that will endure and that is as useful as it is beautiful.
I am a real fan of traditional boatbuilding, using wood and fasteners, for a number of reasons, one of which is aesthetics. You can't beat the look of the seams in a carvel-planked hull transitioning to a perfectly fit, varnished mahogany or teak transom. It's also a well-proven way to build a boat, and these boats will last generations with proper maintenance, as we saw in my recent look at Peter Kass' rugged and seakindly Down East workboats and sublime yachts in the June issue of Soundings.
For different reasons, I am equally enthusiastic about the use of cold-molded construction, which uses wood as the primary structure but held together with epoxy rather than metal fasteners. Cold molding blends the best of old and new technologies. Though methods and materials vary widely, cold-molded boats are generally built of multiple layers of thin planking that usually run in different directions from one layer to the next. A typical method is to run the first layer parallel to the keel and sheer, the next two at alternate 45-degree diagonals to stiffen the hull longitudinally, and a final layer running fore and aft like the first.
Cold molding makes excellent use of wood, which is one of the most efficient materials around for building a structure in terms of strength-to-weight. Each layer of wood planking is bonded to the next by epoxy resin, which glues and seals the layers. Rather than relying on thousands of fasteners to hold the hull together, the boat effectively becomes a single unit, like a fiberglass hull.
If you're looking for evidence of the material's effectiveness and efficiency, some of the lightest and fastest 50- to 80-foot sportfishing boats in the business are built of cold-molded wood. And if you want a custom boat, there's no better way to go than cold-molded since it lends itself naturally to one-off construction. (See the accompanying story to learn more about a fine cold-molded boat from this very talented group of instructors, designers and students.)
Offering a course in fiberglass composite boatbuilding by a school founded and operated by people who are more sailors and wooden-boat enthusiasts at heart might have been driven more by a pragmatic view of the economics of the industry than anything else. The fact is, the vast majority of boats in use today are built of fiberglass, for the excellent reason that a fiberglass boat is so easy and inexpensive to build, as long as there are female molds in which to lay up the parts (hull, deck, etc).
Students learn the physical properties of different resins and fiberglass reinforcements, as well as the use of core materials, vacuum bagging, resin infusion and prepregs in the classroom. They learn all they need to know to build a boat - how to loft from a set of lines, vacuum bag laminate stacks to compress the cores against the skins, how to create the plugs and molds used in fiberglass production boatbuilding, and how to set up the ovens to post-cure epoxy structures. They're taught how to Barcol-test resin for hardness and burn-test hull skin samples for resin-to-glass ratios.
Learning from sailboats
While much of the staff and student body may be sailors at heart, the powerboats designed, built and eventually sold here help pay the bills. These boats are also what most of these students will be building themselves eventually, since the boating world, in terms of annual sales, is 85 percent powerboat-oriented.
When examining how the fiberglass composite boats at the school are built, it's helpful to keep in mind that anyone who can build a good high-performance sailboat that's light and strong - obviously a necessity, as a successful performance boat can't be heavy and weak - can also likely build a high-performance powerboat, which is invariably much less challenging from an engineering point of view.
Consider that a sailboat's appendages are stressed far more than any part of a powerboat, with the possible exception of the predictable and easily engineered hull bottom and engine-bed loads. Now think about the loads on the 3/4-inch-thick, 5-foot-long centerboard I saw at the school that supports a 320-pound lead weight on the bottom end and slides up and down inside a trunk at the other end. How they made that centerboard strong and stiff enough to support all that bending moment, while keeping it very thin in cross section, is probably the most impressive piece of engineering I saw during my brief visit and every bit as impressive - and beautifully executed in carbon fiber and clear vinylester resin - as anything I've seen elsewhere.
Speaking of impressive, that centerboard and centerboard trunk are attached to a 20-foot Steve Dalzell-designed LS 20 sloop with an open transom and a cockpit that extends all the way to the bow, representing the sort of innovative thought that could - if I may speak frankly - use a little more prominence of place in certain quarters of the powerboat world.
This 21-foot, 9-inch by 5-foot, 11-inch beauty weighs 570 pounds before the centerboard is attached, and its very light bottom loading means it can get up on plane (with the hull supported primarily by dynamic lift) even though it decidedly does not have a planing hull form. The open transom lets you slip off for a quick dip and climb back on board with no need for a ladder, and any water that makes its way aboard instantly vacates over the stern.
And you can have one of these for $24,000 rigged and ready to sail, plus around $2,200 for a trailer. What makes the boat so light and helps make it such a good performer - with great handling to windward - is its Core-Cell vacuum-bagged, foam-core construction.
The Systems curriculum, which this year had 24 of those 85 students, was started in 1999 to address a growing need for skilled technicians. Boats have always had electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, and as they have gotten more complex, they've also become commensurately more prone to trouble and labor-intensive to fix.
This complexity has driven the need for better-trained technicians, which The Landing School is perfectly suited to turn out. The demand for used boats has also increased in the last couple of years and many of these older craft need extensive work to bring them back to reliable condition.
Half of the Systems course is devoted to classroom training and the rest to hands-on training on a 1970s-vintage 30-foot Trojan the school owns - and whatever boat they happen to be working on at the moment. When I visited, a 33-foot, 30-year-old Taiwanese-built trawler was being worked on, but it was soon to be sent back to its owner after a number of elemental structural problems were found as they started digging in to rehab the systems.
The school looks for project boats that match the curriculum. For example, for next year they'd like to find a boat that needs a repower, since drivetrain installation is a core element of the training. Sometimes they'll bring a boat in, work on it for six months, return it to the owner for a summer or two, then take it back to do the rest of the work. That way the owner doesn't have to give up the boat for too long at one stretch.
Among other things, Systems students are required to design complete AC and DC electrical systems. Of all the systems, electrical is considered the most trouble-prone, which is why the classroom training starts with the basics, such as teaching Ohm's and Kirchoff's laws. The students also create a schematic of the Trojan's electrical and mechanical systems and do troubleshooting. They also have an air-conditioning system mockup on a stand and a drivetrain mockup with a Yanmar diesel and engine-mounted A/C compressor, along with lots of different pumps to learn about.
The students take a composites module so they know how to work with wood and fiberglass reinforcements and they learn how to silver-solder - the most dangerous day of the year, the instructors joke - so they can work on air-conditioning systems. They also learn American Boat and Yacht Council and ISO rules, and at the end of the course they take ABYC exams in electrical, diesel and systems, and a National Marine Electronics Association exam in electronics installation. As a result, the more ambitious among them can graduate from the program with four different certifications.
However, getting to the end of the program is not easy. Class runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. five days a week for 38 weeks. Grades matter and so does attendance. Miss more than a day or two per quarter and you're out. Customers who are lucky enough to have their boats worked on at the school pay for materials plus 10 percent. When you think about it, a good plan might be to talk to the school, find out what they're looking for to match their curriculum and find a boat to suit.
The Yacht Design course may be the most intensive program of all, covering in 38 weeks what is usually at least a two-year program. Students come in at 8 a.m. for four hours of class, have lunch, then come back to work on projects, with instructors on hand to help. At 5 p.m., the instructors go home, the students grab something to eat, then come back, often until midnight (when they have to leave the building) to continue work on their studies. Putting in 75 to 80 hours a week - including weekends - is not unusual and attrition rate is high, usually about 10 to 30 percent.
Happily, student housing often works out well. The staff compiles a list of summer-home owners looking for caretaker tenants, and students make their own arrangements with the homeowners. This is good because the total cost of attending The Landing School runs around $35,000, including $18,000 tuition, so what a delight it must be for students working themselves to the bone and trying to scrape a few nickels together to go home each night to a million-dollar waterfront home.
The first quarter in the design program covers basic principles, including stability, hydrostatics and hydrodynamics; designing to ISO standards; and using two- and three-dimensional computer aided design programs, such as AutoCad, Rhino and Orca (formerly FastShip). The second semester brings a sailboat project, where students are given a design to fit out with systems, work out the aesthetics and develop a sail plan, rudder and keel designs. Third-semester students are given a powerboat project, and this year they got a commercial pilot boat to fit out. Of course, this has many more systems to work out than the sailboat. The final quarter has the students doing their own design from start to finish, sail or power, 25 to 50 feet.
One of the beauties of the school is the combination of self-directed study and direct supervision by instructors. There's unrelenting pressure to not only show up on time every day but also to do good work, make progress and work hard for long hours. This creates graduates who are not only uncommonly proficient, but have developed a strong work ethic, like the Maine waterfront is known for fostering. This built-in motivational force may account for the fair number of formerly self-directed boat design students who end up coming to The Landing School to finish their studies.
My hat is off to the founders and staff at The Landing School - and, of course, to the students. On my brief visit, I encountered among staff and students alike great attitudes, smiles and humor, infectious enthusiasm and a depth of knowledge that the industry needs today as much as it ever has. My tour guide, Nicole Jacques - the school's marketing director - quickly and modestly revealed a familiarity with such esoterica as beam theory and resin properties that was a joy to behold.
If I were running a boat company, this is the first place I'd look for talent. It's a great place to learn and to soak in the Maine living experience, which I myself have done and can heartily recommend. (The immediate area has a long ship- and boatbuilding heritage.)
And if you're in the market for a well-built and attractively priced wooden, wood-epoxy or fiberglass composite boat, or have one to be restored and updated, then stop by for a visit. Or if you know someone who's looking for something meaningful to do with his or her life, send them a link to the school's Web site (www.landingschool.edu). Arundel is only 90 miles from Boston and 28 miles from Portland, so there's no excuse not to visit - and many excellent reasons to do so.
See related stories:
- Fostering a sense of fulfillment, passion
- Fly Fisher 22: the fruit of their hard work
This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.