Preserving the boat-building craft at Herreshoff

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Nick Amoroso and Vinny Campagna inspect a steam-filled pipe before inserting wooden frames.

When Christmas came around, Gaetano McGovern didn’t want Santa to bring him cars, trucks and other typical toys sought after by a 9-year-old.

This Warren boy wanted craftsman tools, all kinds.

“I’m really interested in construction,” Gaetano said.

Gaetano’s love of wood-working was cultivated in a little-known boat building program for middle school students offered at the Herreshoff Marine Museum. He learned about the program from participating in the museum’s sailing class over the summer.

Wooden boats? Hand tools? Gaetano was hooked.

“I was asking everyone for the different tools we use in the (program),” he said of his family’s Christmas presents to him, “so that I can build my own things at home.”

Gaetano is one of three boys participating in the 16-week Middle School Mentorship Program, which has been meeting every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon since November. Guided by museum shipwright Keith Brown, the eager, young craftsmen are studying the concepts of wooden sail boat construction while learning basic hand tool skills.

“We try to give them the experience of working on traditional boats, the maintenance and repair that goes into it,” Mr. Brown said. “It’s a specific skill set that’s not common these days.”

Wooden sail boats largely drove the sailing industry until the mid 50s and 60s, Mr. Brown said. At that time, manufacturing companies were beginning to make boats out of aluminum. It was easier and less expensive to maintain.

“People were tossing their wooden boats aside,” he said.

Now, sailors are beginning to see the value in the aesthetics of wooden boats and the way they’re built, Mr. Brown said. At the museum, shipwrights maintain their boats in the same manner they did decades earlier.

“It’s a bit of a history lesson, too,” Mr. Brown said.

On one particular Tuesday afternoon, Vinny Campagna (an eighth-grade student at Kickemuit Middle School), and Nick Amoroso (an eighth-grade student at Barrington Middle School), were learning how to steam-bend frames for the inside of a boat. Wooden sticks about two-inches thick were stuffed into a hollow PVC pipe with two openings — one pumping in hot steam and the other was the stick entry point.

The temperature in the PVC pipe will reach about 200 degrees, Mr. Brown told the two boys. Gaetano was at home, recovering from a stomach bug.

“This is just really awesome,” Vinny said, his eyes traveling the length of the rubber hose feeding the steam into the pipe.

Vinny signed up for the mentorship program when he wasn’t able to take wood-working at KMS. The class at school is an elective and students are chosen to participate based on a lottery system.

“When I found out about this, I told my parents that I definitely wanted to do it,” he said.

When Nick’s dad went to Newport to check out a boat-building school over the summer, Nick tagged along.

“My dad is retiring soon and wanted to look at other things to do,” he said. “When I saw all that they learned in the school, and then heard about this, I knew I wanted to do this. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Mr. Brown taught Vinny and Nick how to properly paint the side of a boat with special boat paint. First, the two primed the surface; then, as Nick used a roller to roll the paint on, Vinny followed close behind with a painter’s brush, smoothing the paint onto the surface.

The threesome have also made toolboxes and a pulley, utilizing hand tools and learning about each one in the process.

There is a cost for the program, which is minimal due to a grant funded by the Hagerty Education Program. The grant is given to programs providing hands-on training of the skills and trades for classic cars and boats.

Those interested in Herreshoff’s program should contact Larry Lavers, Chief Operating Officer, at 253-5000.

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