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Building a boat and learning for life

An island-based non-profit encourages kids to be creative with their minds and hands

Paint your own picture. Grow your own grub. Build your own boat, so it may build you. It’s about independence, confidence and the power of creation.

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Appreciating the finesse, expertise and know-how that define a craft once was common, but it’s increasingly lost to a society that forks over money for sterile mass-produced goods. Building a vessel from scratch can teach a different way, an old-fashioned one perhaps, but one that exposes the skill and sweat that goes into a product of value.

Islesford Boatworks ( on Little Cranberry Island, Maine, is not your typical wooden-boat building school. It’s a non-profit organization that runs a summer program designed for kids between ages 7 and 13, based on an initiative by the Ravenhill siblings, Brendan, Geoffrey and Amanda, and cousin David. They do the teaching, too, with assistance from volunteers. To recognize the importance of this program, it is necessary to understand not just the curriculum, but also how it ties in with the island’s close-knit community. “Boatbuilding can teach kids so much,” says Brendan Ravenhill, initiator of this program. He’s an industrial designer with a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. “A creative mind and creative hands can change the perception of what’s possible. I know, because I grew up with this confidence.”

Ravenhill’s late father, an anthropologist and professor at Abidjan University in Côte d’Ivoire, also was a consummate woodworker. All the Ravenhills are globetrotters, but faithfully come back to Little Cranberry for their summers and sometimes more, thus becoming part of the island’s fabric. With the help of his family and some talented friends, Brendan designed and built a top-notch woodshop in the woods not far from the Islesford ferry dock. It is a clean, well-lit place, even on a foggy, dreary summer day when the trees are dripping with moisture.

From left, Amanda, Geoffrey and David Ravenhill founded and teach at Islesford Boatworks.

The origins of the idea go back to the Big Apple, to the South Bronx, which is probably as far removed from Down East island life as one can get. There Brendan worked with a youth development program called Rocking the Boat (, which teaches inner-city kids boatbuilding. “It was a wonderful experience, but kids [in the Bronx] don’t have the same connection to the ocean as on an island where boatbuilding was part of life,” he says. The summer program at Islesford runs for several weeks, differing a little from year to year. The suggested tuition is $85 per week, but that’s not set in stone. Nobody will be turned away for monetary reasons.

The workshop is split into two age groups. Each builds a simple, small vessel. The younger ones, the Cedars, are ages 7 to 11; the Oars are 12 and up. The latter can use power tools under supervision. Together they experience the magic of teamwork, seeing one form being shaped by the work of many hands. And when it’s all built, there’s a launch party on the beach, a maiden voyage and a raffle to determine the new owner and raise funds for next year’s program.

What’s the kids’ favorite job? “Working on the oars,” says Annie Langhauser, 8, a gregarious third-grader from Portland, Maine, and an alumna of the 2008 program. “She did not have meaningful boating experience, but [at Ilsesford] she learned about boats, arts and craftsmanship,” says her dad, Derek Langhauser, general counsel for Maine Community Colleges. “The program makes sophisticated work accessible to youth in a safe and enjoyable manner.”

But there’s more than meets the eye and it’s all linked in intricate, logical ways. Before starting the non-profit, which received funding from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation and the Maine Community Foundation, Brendan Ravenhill invited Richard Dudman to join the advisory board. Dudman, a retired Washington bureau chief at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, extensively covered the Vietnam War. These days he writes editorials for the Bangor (Maine) Daily News and makes his summer home in Islesford. He also remains true to his love for wooden boats. “For 29 years, I used to sail a Friendship sloop built by Ralph Stanley,” Dudman recalls. “Used to do all the maintenance, too.” But he also built boats himself and one of them, a Joel White designed Catspaw dinghy, is part of Brendan’s growing fleet.

The Class of 2009 at Islesford Boatworks, ranging in age from 7 to 13, built this Classic 10 skin-on-frame rowing dinghy.

The fleet of boats built by the kids since the program’s inception in 2006 is growing too. It includes the 15-foot Daisy dinghy designed by Harry Bryan (, a Classic 10 rowing dinghy and a SnowShoe Arrow 14 Canoe, both skin-on-frame designs by Platt Monfort.

So what happens to the boats when they have been launched? “We used to auction them off, but now we hold a raffle,” explains Amanda Ravenhill. Last summer a leaf blower was stuck into an urn to mix up the tickets, and the winning stub belonged to a citizen of Islesford: children’s book author and illustrator Ashley Bryan, the recipient of the 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, who grew up in the Bronx as a son of immigrant parents from Antigua.

Bryan’s house is close to the woodshop, so kids pass it by when they go to class. It is chock-full of museum-quality art, knick-knacks, colorful windows and the puppets he puts together from flotsam he finds at the beach. At 86, Bryan is not about to start a boating career, but still is tickled about winning the Classic 10. “It’s beautiful,” he says when asked about the prize. “I can see all the ribs through its translucent skin, but I’ll have to practice rowing so I won’t swirl around.”

By building a workshop and teaching children the craft of building a simple boat, the Ravenhills have set an example that integrates education, community and fund-raising. It’s no mean feat and mother Judith, who remarried and works for the U.S. government in Port-Au-Prince on the island of Haiti, brims with admiration when she stops by the shop: “I was [already] overwhelmed by my kids 10 years ago,” she says. “They surpassed all my expectations. They have the handy talents from their dad, who loved to work with wood.”

In the golden age of sailing ships, wood was the only ubiquitous material that offered strength and lightness, which are the two most important qualities required to build seaworthy vessels. It has long been replaced by steel, aluminum and composite construction methods, but it still holds charm and a strong lure.

“It provides a connection between form and function,” as Brendan Ravenhill explains. “Working with wood teaches the art of the curve. It provides a sense of history and a sense of place, especially on an island that used to depend on boatbuilding. It will serve the kids well later in life, even if they never build a boat again, because it teaches them that they can create.” Or as they say in the Bronx: Kids don’t just build boats, boats build kids.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.