Front view of a boat

Reflections from TWSBA 2019

By Charlie Beyer, Champlain Longboats

Hi! For those that don’t know me, I’m Charlie Beyer, the Assistant Director of Champlain Longboats. I work with Nick Patch to run the Boat Shop here at the museum and to lead our new longboat construction each winter with local high school students. In the summer I teach kayak building for Champlain Discovery, lead and facilitate our expeditions, and keep on top of our longboats fleet.

Front view of a boat inside

I’m writing because I just got back from the Teaching with Small Boats Alliance (TWSBA, pronounced twis-ba) and Museum Small Craft Alliance (just M-S-C-A) joint conference hosted by the Antique Boat Museum on their fabulous Clayton, NY campus and I wanted to share a little bit. The conference is bi-annual and was last hosted by Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 2017, so most of us hadn’t seen each other since then. The range of organizations present is vast, both in their relative sizes and in their different focuses. Some are similar to our own Champlain Longboats, others are less so. For me, the most valuable part of these gatherings is not the organized presentations (I can only watch so many PowerPoints before my brains run out my ears) but the opportunity to exchange ideas and perspectives with such a passionate and diverse crowd.

On Friday we loaded up and trucked two of our pilot gigs over to Clayton (a big thanks to Lucy Holmes for helping to load and to Ben Swanton for volunteering his time to come along for the ride and help manage the boats; we couldn’t have done it without you). We brought Annie O and Frank Beckett with us since they are our newest and shiniest members of the fleet, and they were very much admired by the conference-goers. We got around 40 folks out on the water on Friday afternoon and Sunday morning; Saturday was a foul weather day so we admired them from inside. Apart from the three presentations I gave on what we do, rowing in our pilot gigs was tangible evidence of our hard work. Rowing with a group of these folks provides an ideal space for a meeting of the minds, plenty of good ideas and fresh perspectives were shared while admiring the gorgeous scenery of the Thousand Islands, and we were a fresh new sight for the folks on Clayton’s waterfront as we rowed by.

One of the interesting things for me about this conference is that it allows me to put Champlain Longboats into a national (indeed, with folks from as far afield as Venezuela, even an international) context that I don’t usually consider. We work so hard to make the programs happen here at the museum that we often don’t take the time to look around. TWSBA conferences offer a chance for me to do that. One of the things I notice is that there are two things which make Champlain Longboats really special.

The first is that we represent a complete, self-contained, ecosystem of boats. We engage students in boat building, maintenance, and restoration while teaching hands-on career and social skills. Plenty of organizations also do a fabulous job with this. We also use every boat we have to its full capacity; we get 200 kids on the water a couple times a week for rowing practice and races, and another 500 kids get out every year in our boats for expeditions, ecology classes and team building. Again, there are plenty of organizations at TWSBA that also do these things.Where we are unique is that we do both, and both sides inform the other. 

Without our students in the shop each winter, we wouldn’t be able to launch the fleet every spring because the winter maintenance on our fleet of 20-odd boats would be too overwhelming, and we certainly wouldn’t be able to keep building new boats. However, without the constantly growing number of kids out rowing hard every day we wouldn’t need to run the boat building and restoration  portion of our program, and the lack of immediate need would diminish its relevance and impact. These two aspects feed into each other. There are shop programs that build boats that end up in storage without a use, and there are rowing programs that aren’t supported by in-house shop programs. Each of these offers half of the puzzle and I’m immensely proud of the way Champlain Longboats manages to bring them together into a unified whole.

The second thing I notice is that we do more with less. Our slice of our institutional  budget is not big compared to other peer programs, yet we do a terrific job of serving a large and diverse group of people. Every year we make sure  anyone and everyone who shows up with a desire to row can get on a rowing team and out on the lake having fun. We run expeditions to push teens and help them find stability and community in middle and high school as they negotiate their transition out of childhood. We run a shop program that puts everyone to work regardless of ability or experience. Again, there are a bunch of organizations running really cool programming (some of which I absolutely intend to steal), but I am proud that we do so much with only two year-round employees and a budget of our size. It speaks to the commitment of our volunteers and school partners that we can make it happen year after year.

Man working at a table with tools with a person watching

As I’m putting Annie O and Frank Beckett back out on the docks for rowing practice this afternoon I’m reflecting back on the weekend. It was a delight to spend time with so many motivated and like-minded people, and it was a refreshing reminder that someone else has already solved most problems , and if you ask the right person they’ll share. At TWSBA it’s a little easier to find that person. There is a lot of standing around, sharing ideas, and talking about dream programs, both in designated sessions or on the docks. As we think about our future here at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum we can milk those connections for ideas, experience and support and these connections pay off. Even though we’re tucked away here on Lake Champlain, we are part of a larger network we can draw from when we need, and give back to when we can.

Teeth to the wind,