Preserving the Art of Boat Building

By Beacon Staff

LAKESIDE – As Alex Berry sees it, when there’s a complex problem, the solution likely lies in the basics. So when the Montana Wooden Boat Foundation decided to help keep at-risk kids out of trouble, they taught the kids how to build boats.

It’s a simple solution, one that helps kids learn life skills, Berry said, and keep them engaged in an activity that has kept humankind engaged since we figured out water travel: “Messing around in boats.”

“It’s something every boat enthusiast has in common,” Berry said in an interview last week. “They like to mess around in boats.”

The MWBF formed the after-school program in spring of 2011, offering classes at Flathead High School. The kids built three boats, including a 12-foot rowing skiff called the Flathead Flattie, and were occupied from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., what Berry calls the “witching hour” for potential trouble because parents aren’t usually home from work yet.

“We provide a safe environment that extends the learning environment,” he said.

That program lasted up until the end of the 2012 school year, and in that same year the MWBF got its 501(c)3 nonprofit status, which Berry said will allow it to expand significantly.

Already, the foundation has two active programs, one at Somers Middle School and one at Lakeside Elementary. The middle school students are building large boats in nine weeks, and 12 kids – including three girls, Berry happily noted – signed up right away.

The elementary school students are building small, model boats in a six-week program, which runs from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. to allow parents to attend as well.

The MWBF provides all the supplies, models and tools, as well as the volunteers who help run the programs.

“We also train the volunteers; it doesn’t take a lot of training, but it takes enthusiasm,” Berry said.

Berry said the boat-building program will likely head to more schools in the near future, and the goal would be to have the program roll to a new location every six to eight weeks.

And while the program initially targeted at-risk kids, often identified through a partnership with the courts, now anyone can sign up, Berry said. The idea is to allow the students to keep advancing as they learn, gaining responsibility and skillsets.

For example, kids who stay with the program might graduate to building a sailboat, then learning to sail it. They could also become assistants to the volunteers, and, if they show interest and initiative, they could become an associate and get paid for their work.

Berry said the foundation has also set up key relationships with other organizations, including Flathead Valley Community College and several professional boat-building companies, that could provide a pathway to a career for students who find their calling in the boats.

Many notable Lakeside boat builders have already given their time to the program, including foundation co-founder Bill Eisenlohr and shipwright Jon Derry.

Alex Berry delivers instructions for model boat building. | Contributed Photos

Funding for the program comes from the foundation, which gets much of its money from its annual Antique and Classic Boat Show held in Lakeside each summer, Berry said.

Also, the MWBF now has a new shop space in Lakeside, where Berry hopes to be able to hold classes for the general public, where families can purchase the supplies and use the space and volunteer knowledge to build themselves a boat.

Berry also hopes to host classes on wood carving, nautical knot tying, varnishing and other aspects, as well as potentially developing a center dedicated to wooden boats and their deep history in Lakeside, complete with a boat supply store, a fleet museum and more.

“Hopefully it’ll become a tourist attraction,” Berry said.

So far, donors such as Sliters Ace Hardware and Plum Creek have provided wood for the shop, Flathead Electric Cooperative provided a grant for a state-of-the-art saw, and the Lakeside Community Club donated the air filtration and sawdust collection system. Berry sees more possibilities for the future, and hopes more people are encouraged to start messing around in boats.

“We encourage anyone that’s interested to come,” Berry said.

To contact the Montana Wooden Boat Foundation, call the office at 406-844-0401 or email alex.b@montanawoodenboatfoundation.org. The office is located at 100 Bierney Creek Rd., Suite G, in Lakeside.

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