When the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory needed a small-boat design to better suit the needs of its students, the staff knew exactly who to turn to: noted small-boat designer Antonio Dias, who’s penned the beauties Harrier, Truth, Small and Tautog, among others.
Dias is an artist, an author and a thinker (www.antoniodiasdesign.wordpress.com), and executive director Brett Hart suspected that he would really “get” the PWBF’s mission. “When I went to Philadelphia I was impressed by how these kids, who basically had no advantages, followed their way upstream to this,” Dias says. “At that point, the only thing keeping those kids there was desire, and I was so impressed by the native intelligence of these 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds.”
Dias realized that he shouldn’t pander or play down to them, but give them a design that would be challenging for just about anyone to build. “I turned completely away from the idea of making these completely simple,” he says. “It had to be lofted, ribs had to be steamed, rivets had to be riveted.” Each step could be redone, if necessary, but Dias didn’t make the design easier for sake of the kids.
He also looked for inspiration in small craft that the working class in the Delaware Valley historically used. The broad category of the “tuck-up” was important, as was lapstrake construction because it’s typically used for dry-sailing boats. Dias also wanted the boat to be as hand-built as possible. The deck is plywood and there’s epoxy in the build, but otherwise it’s all traditional construction techniques and materials.
When he had the design worked out, Dias returned to Philadelphia to do the lofting with the class. “These kids don’t really have a background of academic success, but they took to it,” he says. “They understood quite a bit right off the bat.”
Dias applauds the PWBF staff and Victoria Guidi, the Boat Build and Sail program director, in particular. Guidi’s background is in teaching and sailing, so she has had to learn boatbuilding as she goes and she has done a remarkable job of working with the students.
Dias says he also was drawn to the project because the finished boats would have a purpose — they’d be raced as a group by the kids who built them, which adds another level of motivation and payoff to the building experience.
“I see boatbuilding as being such a model for how we can interact with the world,” he says, “trying consistently to say, what is the next step and in that way pushing past each challenge to a pleasing incremental result.”
Dias notes that what he took away from the project most was the sense that when people are presented with real challenges, rather than being put through pointless exercises or manipulated through a series of steps, they rise to the occasion and get things done.
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March 2014 issue