PORT TOWNSEND — In the woodworking shop at the Northwest Maritime Center, a little boat is slowly being worked on by ten pairs of small hands and a lot of big ambition.
The Girls’ Boat Project is giving young women ages 12-18 hands-on experience in learning both woodworking and collaborative skills.
The idea was realized in 2013 by the Wooden Boat School and the Port Townsend School District, inspired by the restoration efforts of Felicity Ann, the 23-foot wooden sloop sailed by Ann Davison in 1952–1953 in the first solo transatlantic crossing by a woman.
Chrissy McLean, Girls’ Boat Project coordinator, said the program outgrew its initial concept and morphed into a skill-building and community-building curriculum at the Northwest Maritime Center five years ago.
She explained that the Girls’ Boat Project has two distinct skill-building parts.
“First there’s the learning-to-work-with-wood part,” McLean said. “The curriculum requires using a lot of hand tools. Jim Tolpin, who started the Port Townsend School of Woodworking and is a well-known woodworker and Port Townsend treasure, helped develop the curriculum for us.
“He has some wonderful ways of measuring wood using hand and eye methods,” she said.
“The girls come into the program and the first project they tackle is building a tool tray. It becomes their own, then they build mallets and other tools to fill the tray.”
McLean admits the other part of the curriculum is a bit more ambitious.
“The girls are collaborating to build a wooden boat,” she said. “Each class has taken on a part of the boat, and they are into it three years at this point.”
The boat that was chosen to build is a John-Gardner-designed 12-foot work punt named Otter Pride.
“We were trying to find a project that fit with some lumber we had donated, that had planking and riveting involved, but didn’t have the technical piece of having a bow stem and having to be really exact,” she said.
“It’s probably the slowest way you could choose to make a boat— which is a few hours a week by a school of girls using mostly hand tools,” McLean said.
“It’s more about the process of them being involved, then really getting to use all of the tools and skills, getting to practice, and then seeing what they are doing can be applied to any piece of work.”
She expects the boat may take two more years to complete.
The program really is not about the boat, she added.
“The girls put in the time and work on the projects. They also practice all of these skills of resiliency: What do you do when you make a mistake, and how do you fix it? If you mess something up, you have to take it apart and do it over again. All of those questions and answers are real skills in woodworking, and they are real life skills, too.
“Of equal importance is that community-building piece, how we deal with all of the unknowns and challenges, and how we push ourselves and are supportive of each other.”
At the end of the program, the students and their instructors will be rewarded with a full-day sailing excursion on the Salish Sea, an area that includes the Strait of Georgia, the eastern side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.
According to McLean, it takes a sincere desire and ability to be part of the Girl’s Boat Project. The classes are held Wednesdays during Port Townsend school’s early release time. Tuition is $360 for school year and scholarships are available.
She encourages the public to stop by the woodworking shop on campus any Wednesday afternoon and watch the students’ slow but steady progress.
The Girls’ Boat Project is partially supported by She Tells Sea Tales, a yearly fundraising live event that brings together women in the maritime industry who, though story and song, share their experiences. All money raised goes towards the project.
This year’s program, which had been sold out weeks in advance, was held Saturday night. Anika Colvin, the Northwest Maritime Center’s communications director, said it’s a grand celebration of women who work on or with the water.
“It’s a male-dominated world, except in our universe,” Colvin said. “This year’s She Tells Sea Tales program features a commercial fisherman, a tall ship captain, a Race to Alaska sailor and more examples of extraordinary women.
“We’ve created a companion book that will be sold in the Wooden Boat Chandlery for $17 that tells the personal stories of some of the women who have been part of the Sea Tales programs for the past five years.”
Colvin said she’s witnessed what these young girls experience in the class and how they respond.
“We are introducing kids to those really cool skills, like courage and grit, but also resiliency and teamwork and confidence,”Colvin said. “That’s what our work is all about: helping and encouraging those characteristics in kids and giving them opportunities to shine. They are working on a boat three hours on a Wednesday.They aren’t getting very far.
“It isn’t about finishing the boat. It’s about all of the steps they take and all of the opportunities they are given.”
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at360-385-2335 or at [email protected].