The graduation ceremony at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I., does not have caps and gowns. In fact, a good majority of the graduates are in flip-flops and the only cap to be seen has a mast and sail atop the mortar board.
IYRS (www.iyrs.org) does not have a typical graduation. After a brief ceremony, the students bound outside and launch the boats they have worked on or built during the course of the year. And you can't be in your best suit when you are launching a boat.
The students launched a fleet of 12-foot Beetle Cats, the New England catboat design dating back to 1921, a restored 1929 Herreshoff 12-1/2 originally built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol, R.I., a restored 20-foot 1941 Gar Wood "Vacationer" motor launch originally built by the Gar Wood boat division in Michigan, and a Chris-Craft model 17 15-1/2-foot Deluxe Runabout originally built in 1940.
Best of all, many of the 31 graduates already have a bright future ahead of them. According to Susan Daly, vice president of marketing for IYRS, 85 percent of the graduates from the boatbuilding and restoration program are employed and 90 percent of the graduates from the marine systems program have found work.
Kenny Grauer, 24, graduated from the nine-month marine systems program this year and the two-year boatbuilding and restoration program last year. He was hired as a technician at Cay Electronics of Portsmouth, R.I., after doing an internship with the company through IYRS.
"The woodworking really attracted me," says Grauer, who is from Middletown, R.I. "I took a chance ... and through both programs I gained a broad spectrum of education."
Grauer had been involved in cabinetry and woodworking since high school. When Plymouth State University didn't turn out to be a good fit for him, Grauer began looking at educational options beyond the traditional four-year college experience. Being part of the boatbuilding program taught him independence and helped him develop a solid work ethic, Grauer says.
"They promote a healthy competition here. Everyone works here extra hours," says Grauer. "When we launched the Corsair last year [a 1939 35-foot restored motor launch] everyone was working on that until 11 at night."
Being part of the marine systems program dovetailed with his experience in boatbuilding and restoration, says Grauer. He can now install, build and troubleshoot everything from air conditioners to watermakers.
Grauer was pleased when Cay Electronics decided to take him on full-time.
"After three years of working at a bar on the weekends and just getting by, it'll be great to have that regular paycheck," says Grauer.
Daniel Burkhart, 27, from Hudson, Mass., graduated from the boatbuilding and restoration program. This was a second career for him after working in the film industry for several years as a lighting technician and gaffer.
"My hobby has always been woodworking and I inherited my grandfather's tools and skill," says Burkhart. "I realized that was what I really loved doing and I had to make a change."
Burkhart grew up on the water in Connecticut and already had a taste for boating, although he has never owned a vessel. He graduated from the University of Southern Maine in Portland as a history major and went on to pursue his career in the film industry. But the satisfaction of a project finished and made with his own hands never left him. Burkhart was instrumental in restoring the Chris-Craft runabout.
"Learning all the aspects of boatbuilding and seeing something going from the drawings to the finished product is incredible," says Burkhart. "And then to see those projects get launched and float - it's so fulfilling."
After sending out about 60 résumés, Burkhart found a position at Dockside Boat Works in Cordova, Md.
The featured speaker at this year's graduation was Donn Costanzo of Wooden Boatworks Inc., a boatyard in Greenport, N.Y., that restores classic wooden vessels and currently employs three IYRS graduates.
"There's an old saying, ‘People don't build boats; boats build people,' " Costanzo said in his address. "You may think, Oh well, I don't need to do something this way or I can skip this step, but it always comes back to haunt you. You have to slow down and focus."
Costanzo lauded the graduates for choosing such a demanding field. While challenges will lie ahead, always learn from trial and error, he told them.
"Those Beetle Cats, that Herreshoff that we are launching today - that is an extension of who you are," says Costanzo. "Don't worry about making mistakes - there will be plenty of them. Be kind to yourself, because if you beat yourself up because of a mistake you're going to end up making that same mistake again."
Learning in a supportive, community environment allows graduates to leave with a "holistic vision" of their craft, a trait that will be valuable to employers, says Terry Nathan, president of IYRS.
The sense of community has certainly been important to David Redero, who is entering his second year in the boatbuilding and restoration program. He and four other first-year students will be doing a summer internship at Alto Adriatico Shipyard, a wooden-boat yard near Trieste, Italy (www.cantierealtoadriatico.it).
"My friend [and fellow student] Raffaele Luciani used to work at that yard and he got the idea for us to go over there," says Redero, 35. "Attending IYRS was a dream I always wanted to pursue. I have a family in Miami and it's hard sometimes, but the skills I will learn here will help me create a better life for their future."
Cameron O'Connor, Bryce LeFort and Nele Spitzley will be joining Redero and Luciani at the boatyard in July. They will be building three Feather 14s, a wooden catboat with traditional styling, but built with cold-molded construction the Italian yard describes as "laminate timber with epoxy resin."
The students will be keeping a blog of their experience at www.projectithaca.com.
As all of the students drifted off into the distance on the vessels crafted or restored by their own hands, the foam from the champagne toasts still floated on the surface of the water.
"That is what boating is really about," says Costanzo, smiling. "Being out interacting with the wind and nature, being a part of the sea. That's why we do what we do."
This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters section of the August 2010 issue.