Defying skeptics, The Landing School has been turning out designers and skilled craftsmen for 30 years
The Landing School’s first class used a converted dairy barn as a classroom and built two dories and two 18-foot sailboats as the curriculum.
“A lot of people said, ‘You can’t do that — it doesn’t make sense,’ and we turned a deaf ear to them,” recalls co-founder John Burgess, 61, who retired from the marine school in 2001 but still serves on the board of trustees. “There are a lot of balls that we had in the air, but we were young, had a lot of energy, and there was just no question in our minds that it was going to work.”
The school, which was founded in Arundel, Maine, in 1978 by Burgess and Helen “Cricket” Clark (now Clark Tupper) with nine students, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. “I think any school that sticks around [this long] that isn’t funded publicly or through big endowments — schools of our type — is unusual,” says school president Barry Acker, 61, reflecting on the anniversary. “We’re a lot broader [than other similar schools]; therefore, we appeal to a much broader collection of students.”
The Landing School (www.thelandingschool.org) is an accredited institute that teaches boatbuilding, yacht design, marine systems and composites courses. And in September, the institution, which for three decades has provided a steady stream of skilled staff into the marine industry, is adding a two-year associate’s degree program.
Burgess stumbled into his career after taking a year off between college and entering his family business in Springfield, Mass., a photo engraving business in the days when newspapers were printed with zinc plates. He liked working with his hands and begged Rumery’s Boat Yard in Maine to hire him.
“I developed a passion for it. I loved it,” he says of working for the wooden-boat builder. “I couldn’t wait for the weekend to be over so I could get back to work Monday morning.”
After a few years there, he went to work at another Maine yard, Baum’s in Kennebunk, which built mostly high-end lobster boats. After a stint mentoring under Kennebunk-based naval architect Cyrus Hamlin, Burgess taught boatbuilding at a school in Marion, Mass., before heading back to Maine to start The Landing School.
It was important, Burgess notes, to provide the best education possible. That included having naval architects in the classroom to teach students about the science of boatbuilding — the why behind the how.
“We had a very humble facility, but we really focused on giving students the best education we possibly could,” he says. “We did everything that we could to solidify the whole educational base of the school.”
One of the most important aspects of the school is its mission, which has remained unchanged since its founding. The Landing School trains men and women for careers in the marine industry — not jobs, Burgess stresses, but careers.
“We’re teaching them how to build boats so they can get entry-level jobs and then work their way up and move through the company to positions of higher responsibility and higher authority,” he says.
Currently, The Landing School’s nearly year-long program has about 75 students enrolled in one of the four course areas. Classes take place in a 50,000-square-foot facility that houses two boatbuilding shops, a design studio, systems laboratory, composites shop, classrooms and a library. During the school year, students build 10 boats, plus repair or repower several production boats, and design more than two dozen of their own vessels.
In March, the State of Maine approved the addition of an associate’s degree program in marine systems. It took 18 months to get this approval, Acker says, and school officials are now applying to their accrediting agency for approval.
Once the two-year program begins in September, the school will offer a one-year program in marine systems and a second year dedicated to more advanced-level work and management courses, as well as 16 hours of general education provided by the University of New England. Acker says he expects more associate degree programs will be added if the marine systems program is successful.
There are around 1,200 graduates of The Landing School working around the world in the marine industry. “They’re a pretty tight little fraternity,” says Acker, who is in his fourth year as president of the school. “I think having that presence in the industry, and that breadth of programming, those are just key factors that make us different.”
Alumni credit the school with giving them a leg up, saying it helped make them more marketable. “The Landing School provided the combination of technical and hands-on with both my undergrad and MBA … in terms of how I understand boats and the [American Boat and Yacht Council] regulations and the technical components of how boats are put together,” says Matt Provenzano, a 2001 graduate of the school who works as director of operations at rigid hull inflatable manufacturer Ribcraft.
Before joining Ribcraft, Provenzano spent three years as a full-time engineer aboard the Spirit of Massachusetts and time aboard another ship on the West Coast. Prior to coming to the school, he worked in property management. The Landing School, he says, helped him “beef up his resume.”
Alison Coladarci, a 2005 graduate, also credits The Landing School with helping fulfill her dream of working in yacht design. “The school aids students in pursuing careers in yacht design by teaching the fundamentals and theory of yacht design, in addition to the techniques required in design,” she says. “I feel that The Landing School is the most efficient way to learn about design and then get the job that will, in turn, get you the industry experience required to become a good designer.”
Coladarci entered the school with a bachelor’s degree in physics, with a minor in mathematics and Italian, from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. In addition, she sailed recreationally and competitively throughout New England. Upon graduation, she worked at the Fontaine Design Group for a year and currently works at Sparkman & Stephens as a yacht designer.
Acker says that even with the current economy, graduates generally don’t have problems landing jobs in the field. “We pretty much have a placement for everybody,” he says.
As for the school’s next 30 or more years, Burgess says he’d like to see the creation of an endowment and a commitment to keeping up with changing technology.
“The school has grown from a small little seedling into a pretty sturdy oak,” he says. “It’s got a very good root system, a very good foundation, a very firm footing in the soil.”
This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.