The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory wants students to become captains of their own destinies.
Jesus Castro is carefully explaining to a handful of teenagers the process of riveting the curved wooden ribs to the hull of the boat. It’ll take several of the kids working at once: two on the inside of the boat, one on the outside. Castro shows them each step, demonstrating in the air how the copper rivet pieces fit together, how the drill should be angled, when to use the hammer, where the person holding the stop should be.
His crew, looking on in their school uniforms, aren’t entirely convinced. “Would you say this process is scientifically accurate?” one pipes up, adjusting her glasses.
Castro shrugs and gives a patient smile. “It’s worked on boats for centuries. But you give it a shot—see if it works.”
Somewhat reassured by the historical tradition, if not the engineering details, the five young boat builders set to work. There’s a learning curve as they try each task, swapping off roles, each trying to find what best suits. One girl, faced with clipping excess wire from the rivet, demurs, saying she doesn’t have the strength and a boy should do it. After pounding in a couple of rivets, however, she catches the rhythm, and starts clipping off the wire herself.
When they’re done, the rivets are loose. So are the boat’s ribs, which were steamed and bent into place by another group of students. The kids will have to redo some of this work if the vessel is to be river-worthy by launch day later this summer. But in the face of one girl awakening to her own sense of power, fixing a few rivets is such a small thing.
Suffice it to say, boats are not the only thing the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory is interested in building.
The Wooden Boat Factory, started in 1996, aims to give economically disadvantaged teenagers opportunities to develop not only practical skills but also their sense of self.
The group offers two programs: Boat Build & Sail and Community Row Riverguides. Build & Sail teaches kids hands-on boatbuilding and sailing, while Riverguides is focused on ecology, offering a chance to learn about the Delaware River and its environment. Both are based around an apprenticeship model, with the students working closely with the staff and instructors. The students come from Marianna Bracetti Academy, Frankford High School, Carver High School and Constitution High School.
The Factory’s executive director, Brett Hart, grew up only a few blocks from the organization’s Frankford location inside the old Globe Dye Works building; he’s an experienced sailor, with the anchor tattoo to prove it. “We consider ourselves to be a strength-based program,” he says, “which means we’re finding opportunities for young people to make contributions... It’s about having young people become owners of their own processes of change—to help them figure out the solutions to their own problems.”
That approach to self-directed experience has earned the Wooden Boat Factory recognition from the Susan Crown Exchange, a Chicago-based education philanthropy. The Factory recently won $100,000 as part of the SCE’s Social and Emotional Learning Challenge; over the next 18 months, the group will be working with Detroit’s Weikart Center for Youth Program Policy. Weikart will evaluate the Philadelphia program, looking for commonalities between it and seven other groups that also received the award. SCE’s goal is to create a “field guide” to help inform future organizations in the best practices in social and emotional learning; it’s a big deal for the Wooden Boat Factory to be involved.
For Castro, the Factory’s artist in residence, the therapeutic qualities of building boats came to him years ago, working with Camden Maritime Museum. “Kids in Camden, the water kind of made them an island,” he says. “They didn’t cross the bridge into Philly, they weren’t coming over into South Street on a Friday. And then, on the other side, the Cooper River kind of separated them from Collingswood, Haddonfield and the nicer suburbs. I’d never put that together that the water was something that separated them.”
A boat, he realized, offered kids in that position a new kind of freedom. “It can take you somewhere that you can’t get to by walking or riding your bike, or catching the bus, or taking the train,” he says. “It can take you somewhere else.”
The backbone of the Wooden Boat Factory’s philosophy—the keel, if you will, around which the hull is built—is the idea of “failing well.” Most teenagers’ experiences with failure come through an academic setting, where a failing grade is seen as catastrophic and irreparable. The Factory, Hart explains, takes a more positive, realistic approach: Doing something wrong is how you learn how important it is to do it right.
He remembers one young woman who had crafted a sailboat’s coaming—the raised edging around the place where you sit. She’d taken great care in shaping and finishing the wood to fit the deck. The trick was that this piece of wood was not going to be painted, it was going to be varnished—which meant if she left any imperfections, the varnish would make them stand out, clear as day.
“She was sanding it and sanding it,” Hart says. “And she came to me said, ‘Brett, am I done sanding?’ I get this question all the time: ‘Am I done? Am I done?’… So I said, ‘This is your piece, on your boat. You have to decide. Are you happy with it?’ Now, I know she doesn’t have any experience to draw on. She’s like ‘Well—umm—maybe not.” So she sands it further and sands it further, and she keeps bringing it to me and I size it up, and I can see the scratches that are going against the grain. I tell her, at some point you’re going to have to make a decision.”
She decided to varnish it, and the consequences of her impatience showed; the scratches were clearly visible.
“Her failure was that she varnished a piece of wood that went on the boat that didn’t have a ‘yacht standard’ to it,” Hart says. “But in actuality, she got a chance, through reflection, to look at it and say, ‘Geez, now I get why I should have spent the extra hour to get this done right.’ Without failing at something, there’s not the opportunity to learn. It’s not what we’re going to tell you as a student, because that’s—pfffft.” Hart flashes a hand over his head. “That’s gone. You have to fail.“
Victoria Guidi agrees. “It’s okay,” the Factory’s program director tells kids, bringing a calm, Zen-like vibe to the often chaotic workshop. “Try again.” Guidi’s been sailing all of her life. Like Castro, she gives the students the right tools, makes sure they’re shown the right methods—but is careful to see them take charge of their own work. When this semester’s over, she wants these kids to sail on boats they built themselves, not ones she built for them.
Nobody understands that better than Andrew Cintron, the group’s program assistant. Cintron was a student at El Centro De Estudiante, an alternative high school in Kensington, when he first took part in Boat Builders a few years ago. His apprenticeship at the Wooden Boat Factory motivated him to him to finish school—and now his experience makes him an invaluable member of the staff.