New Year, New Boat: 2020 Student Boat Building Kicks Off

Meg Champlain Longboats, Education, Museum

By Meg Salocks, Director of Marketing and Engagement

Today marks the first day of an exciting annual project here at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum: the first day of boat building! This year our boat builders hail from two local schools: Vergennes Union High and Middlebury Union High.

Middlebury students
Vergennes students

Our flagship youth boat building program, Champlain Longboats has been engaging kids since 1999. Each winter we are joined by local high school students who build a 32’ Cornish pilot gig in the museum’s boat shop. A Cornish pilot gig is a six-oared open-water rowing boat that dates back to the early 1800s when they were primarily used to carry pilots out to the incoming ships off the Cornish coasts. This year, from January until May, a group of 18 high school students will spend their school day in the boat building shop learning to build “from tree to boat.”

This process actually first starts off campus as our student boat builders head into the woods with our collaborative partner Vermont Family Forests (VFF), a local non-profit that promotes sustainable forestry practices, to select trees that will become boats built at the museum. Logs  and a saw mill are transported to the museum where the youth boat builders help turn the timber into lumber, participating in the milling and stacking of the lumber.

Students will then join us five days a week for five months in our boat shop to build the 32′ boat with guidance from the museum’s boat builders. The team explores woodworking tools and are immersed in traditional boat building skills including fitting (spiling) new planks and installing over 3,000 copper nails and rivets. The young boat builders must also learn and implement the art of fine finishing as they sand, paint, and varnish the boat to a high quality luster. In addition, students will explore science and math curriculum which is embedded in the boatbuilding project and will give public presentations at an open-house night and the launch celebration.

Middlebury students in the boat shop today

We’ll be sharing our boat builders’ progress regularly on Facebook and Instagram. Check out this video from a previous year to get a sense of how the boat comes together (and just how big it is!):

This annual project culminates with the grand launch of the new boat in May. Our Champlain Longboats community of current students, past alumni, instructors, youth and adult rowers, parents, family, and staff come together as we parade the boat down to Lake Champlain for its first official launch. This year marks our 21st boat and we can’t wait to see the amazing work and care these students will put into it.