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Building boats and shaping lives

Frankford, in the northeast part of Philadelphia, seems an unlikely place to find passionate boatbuilders. Founded by Quakers in 1682, this gritty former manufacturing area on the outskirts of the city now wears a necklace of used-car dealerships, empty factories and low expectations.

PWBF students work in teams, with a daily list of tasks to complete on each boat.

And it’s not exactly near the water. Much of Frankford Creek’s watershed, about a half-mile to the west, has been converted to storm sewers. The Frankford boat ramp reaches into the Delaware River about a mile and a half to the east.

But open the door any weekday evening at a large brick building in the old Globe Dye Works complex at 4520 Worth St. and you’ll see a sight to gladden every mariner’s heart. In this cavernous space, which somehow still feels cozy, two lapstrake boats rest, half-finished, on sawhorses. A plane sits in a pile of blond shavings. A saw whines, and the air suddenly smells of cedar. And there is the sound of laughter — two dozen high school students are working on these boats and, clearly, enjoying it.

Building a boat is hard work, and these first efforts aren’t going to win any beauty prizes. What matters is that these teenagers have made every cut and scarf — from stem to stern and garboard to sheer. However, teaching urban youth how to build and sail a boat is only the most obvious goal of the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory. As executive director Brett Hart points out, the programs are as much about social work as boatbuilding.

“I tell these kids all the time, your brain is a muscle, and if you don’t use it, it’s going to atrophy,” Hart says. It’s something no one else is telling them: The teenagers in this program come from home situations that are unimaginably bleak. They live in poverty, attend substandard schools, and often struggle with lack of attention in their home situations. The PWBF offers them somewhere friendly, warm and safe to go, and something constructive to do. They learn real maritime and woodworking skills, of course, but more important, they learn life skills — problem solving, tenacity, team building, patience and the importance of clear communication.

Valuable old-growth cedar, felled by Hurricane Sandy, was donated to the school and unloaded by students, teachers and volunteers.

“We restored a couple of Lightnings a few years ago,” Hart recalls. “They weighed close to 700 pounds, and we could see right away that the kids were never going to be able to push these boats to their limits. And if you don’t do that, you haven’t really learned how to sail.”

So the PWBF contacted Narragansett, R.I., designer Antonio Dias and invited him to create something the kids could build and sail. Dias visited the PWBF to meet the students and understand the mission. Then he went home and created the Factory One Design, a 12-1/2-foot cedar-on-oak lapstrake design. Dias returned to help the kids loft the first three, and the PWBF plans a fleet of 10 to 15 in the next three to five years. They’ve finished one, dubbed Purple Lady, and given it a “soft” launch.

“It’s their boat, and the kids love purple, so who are we to tell them it can’t be that color?” Hart says, looking at the first Factory One Design, which is painted a shade you’d be hard-pressed to find in nature.

He believes Dias nailed the design. “Plank on frame was important because there’s a repetitive process here that lets the kids continually improve,” he says. The garboard is usually not so pretty, Hart notes. The next plank is better, but the process is slow and imprecise.

“By the time that last plank goes on, the kids know what they are doing — they’re confident and faster,” he says. And the sense of accomplishment is something they take with them wherever they go.

Modeled after the successful Rocking the Boat program in the Bronx, N.Y., the PWBF was founded in 1996 by Geoff McKonley. Hart began at the PWBF in 2000 as an educator in its in-school industrial arts canoe-building program. He left in 2003 and returned as executive director in 2010.

A tall-ship captain and wooden-boat builder, Hart is originally from the Frankford neighborhood, and he empathizes with the students. School was not his strong suit, and it wasn’t until he discovered his passion for boats that he became focused. He did a stint at Maine’s Landing School and was employed by the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, going to sea with teenage students from East Los Angeles.

Classes are challenging but build confidence.

Hart was the director of maritime education for Philadelphia City Sail and captain of its 75-foot schooner North Wind, traveling for extended periods with Philadelphia teens. He also worked for years as a captain aboard charter yachts in the Caribbean.

Victoria Guidi, the PWBF’s program director, has a master’s degree in special education, taught in the South Bronx and is fluent in Spanish. She also worked for several years in El Salvador as head coach of its Sailing Federation, and her unique skills make her a perfect fit for the PWBF.

Andy Cintron rounds out the Boat Build and Sail staff. He started as a student while enrolled in high school at El Centro dos Estudiantes — a Philadelphia alternative high school — and apprenticed two days a week at the PWBF as part of his curriculum. When he graduated, the school hired him as a program assistant. It means a lot to the students to have a peer succeed as Cintron has and to be able to learn from someone who comes from the same environment.

In the last four years, the PWBF has more than quadrupled its annual budget of $70,000. About 80 percent of that comes from corporate sponsors and partnership donations. Hart eventually would like to see much more come from the private sector. The school’s next goal is to add someone with a master’s degree in social work to the staff.

“Attendance is currently our only way of measuring success,” Hart says, referring to a study that showed most kids who are enrolled in extracurricular activities devote an average of two hours a week to it; PWBF students average eight hours a week. Their program is also over-enrolled. Hart would like to be able to track student GPAs and other data that they have access to, and he’d like to have a qualified person on hand to deal with students in crisis.

This summer, PWBF students, who are all initially flagged as likely to drop out of high school, will be making minimum wage for their participation in the Boat Build and Sail program and the Community Row Riverguide program. The latter is the other offering at the PWBF. It empowers high school teenagers to become teachers and environmental advocates so they can engage their neighbors and local businesses in environmental education and green infrastructure projects.

A community Row Day gets underway.

In the alley behind the boat shop, the students have helped paint murals and grow vegetables. For some, it’s the first time they have seen a tomato on the vine or learned that peppers “come in purple, too.”

It’s clearly not all about boatbuilding at the PWBF. Yes, these kids have learned about stems and buttocks; they can run a bandsaw and trim a sail — some of them even helped pour a lead keel. They follow through, they pay attention to details and they have confidence. But when high school is over, four years of woodworking skills and resiliency training probably will be trumped by the luxury of having had this extra love and guidance.

As Hart puts it, he’d rather make a mistake on a boat than make a mistake on a kid. It seems there’s little danger of either at the PWBF.

See related article:

- The Facory One Design

March 2014 issue



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Building on Success

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Shape of the Future?

A newly launched boat in Italy suggests one possible future for 3D printers in boatbuilding