When John Burgess got out of college in 1970 he decided to do something different before taking over the family business, starting with getting a job at Rumery's Boatyard in Biddeford, Maine.
"That job changed me," Burgess recalls. "I developed a passion I'd never experienced before. I really loved working there. I used to take home blocks of wood on weekends and practice cutting compound angles with a handsaw."
Burgess worked there for four years and then was offered a job at Baum's Boatyard, down the coast in Kennebunkport. "Herbie Baum was completely different," he says. "Walking into his shop was like entering a time warp - the smell of the wood stove, cedar shavings, old wooden hand planes."
There was a lobster boat well under way in the shed and it was being worked on by four old "Yankee" boatbuilders. "They were real Down East old-timers, reserved and reticent, which was OK since they didn't have to communicate very much with each other as they did their work," says Burgess. "Everybody knew his job."
Burgess also noticed a big difference between the way Rumery built a boat and how Baum got the same job done. "When they got a new project, Herbie Baum would get quieter than normal," says Burgess. "He'd isolate himself for a while, concentrate on the new boat's design, and then he'd make a half model, always 1-inch-to-the-foot scale."
Once he had the half model, he would use it to make the hull lines. "He'd get a pad of graph paper - 1-inch-to-the-foot scale - draw the profile, measure the sheer and tick it off with a tick strip," he says. "Then he'd mark and divide the hull into 10 sections [stations] like a loaf of bread. He'd take a strip of lead and bend it around the sections and then draw that out on the graph paper to get the shape at the stations and do the same thing with the keel."
At Rumery's in those days, there was a drawing for everything, and if there was no drawing, work pretty much came to a halt until they got one from the designer. "A drawing could just confuse Herbie, but his boats came out looking just as good as Rumery's," Burgess says. "His method might not have been as accurate during the lofting phase, but he more than made up for it with craftsmanship. If he lacked in sophistication, he had a lifetime of experience and the skills he learned as a boy out on a Maine island off Rockland."
There was no electricity out on the island, so everything was cut by hand. "They used egg beater drills to drill all the three holes for each fastener - a pilot hole, fastener hole and counterbore for the bung," says Burgess. "Although Baum's Boatyard had electricity and power tools, much of the shaping of wood was still done with century-old tools and techniques, including a broad axe and lipped adzes. This was in the mid-1970s, and it was like living history."
Burgess' next stop was a stint working for naval architect Cy Hamlin as an apprentice, followed by a couple of years teaching boatbuilding in Massachusetts. In 1978, with all this experience churning around in his mind and looking for an outlet, he teamed up with Cricket Tupper, and they started The Landing School.
Her husband, Chris Tupper, was Hamlin's partner, and Hamlin and Chris Tupper moved into one end of the old cow barn where the school was started. They would teach the students so many hours a week, and that was the beginning of the design program.
"They taught the boatbuilding students the things they needed to know, such as the importance of controlling weight and weight distribution, rudder design, the formula for the moment of inertia of a rectangle," says Burgess. "The idea was to open their eyes to the mechanical and physical properties you need to know about to be a good boatbuilder."
Thirty-two years later, the impact of The Landing School on the boatbuilding and repair industry is considerable. "The majority of our graduates go into the marine industry, and these former students have, in many cases, risen to positions of management," says Burgess. "We feel they are making a huge impact on the industry in repair and restoration, systems, manufacturing. We find our grads pretty much everywhere. They are all members of this low-profile fraternity. They contact each other, network to locate jobs and seek advice. It's a very powerful thing."
The Landing School provides a welcoming, positive, invigorating environment for staff and students to interact and create. In fact, it's the creative and recreative functions of the school - along with the technical expertise, patience and humor of its instructors - that help make it a success.
"The school is a really good organization," says Burgess. "It's healthy, something society can be proud of. It doesn't hurt people, and students develop a deep sense of fulfillment from their professional lives. One of the biggest tragedies in our culture is that a huge number of people do not like going to work on Monday morning. They tolerate it. They do not have a passion for their work."
By and large, people attend The Landing School because they love boats, says Burgess. "It's wholesome, satisfying and rewarding," he says. "Lots of people have pursued high-paying jobs and false promises of happiness only to find out happiness is an inside job. People make a lot of money and are still miserable. A balanced life, on the other hand, makes them happy, even if they're not making millions. It's a healthy place in mind, body and spirit."
Burgess continues: "We work in teams, and we have a very diverse student body. We have a nuclear submarine commander working next to a guy with a ponytail and earrings. They're all working together with a common goal, their personal goals vectored toward a superordinate goal."
Burgess would like the school to continue what it's doing philosophically while continuing to adapt to the times. "We have a very talented board and skilled, smart employees, and intellectually hungry students," he says. "We never take where we are for granted. Critical analysis is ongoing - what are we doing well, not doing well? We're not afraid to look in the mirror and ask what we can do better. It's a constant question, and a there's a constant tension inherent in answering that question. We're a school and so we teach."
A few years ago, the school brought in a psychologist to help the staff understand learning styles. "We wanted to find out how to develop the keys to reach students in different ways according to the way they individually learn," says Burgess. "It goes far beyond teaching to suit the way you yourself learn. We all have to understand how other people learn differently."
One of the psychologist's exercises was to have all the teachers pair off. "There we were, standing in the shop, and he had us shut our eyes and hold our hand out while one fellow put five different things into the other's hand, one object at a time - maybe a pebble, a pencil, some wood shavings and so on, and then put them down. Then our partner would do the same thing to us."
The teachers then got in a big circle, and the psychologist had everyone tell what those objects were, in reverse order. He then asked how they remembered the objects. "I said that I had a picture of these five objects in my mind, while the next person said they made up an acronym, and so on," says Burgess. "It turned out people process information in at least seven different ways using some combination of concrete and abstract reasoning. So when you don't get through to a student, you have to try another method."
Burgess says The Landing School staff has always asked themselves how to do things better. "How to build a boat that is more suitable, what skills does the industry need us to teach our yacht design students, and so on," he says. "We send out a survey to the industry advisers on our board and ask them the same thing. We don't stand around patting ourselves on the back. We always ask ourselves what's next."
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This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.