Portland State University

Student Boat-Builders Near Finish Line

The 16-foot open day-sailer that eight at-risk youth built this summer as an exercise to learn math and work skills will be finished Friday and, after a little fit and polish, will be launched into the Willamette River October 5. Before then, it will be displayed in Pioneer Square to kick off National Manufacturing Day October 4.

The eight students, only one of whom had completed high school and ranging in age from 17 to 22, showed up 13 weeks ago to a workshop located at 11th and SE Stark in Portland. They found a pile of wood and a keel. None had any experience with woodworking and all had struggled with math in school. None had any clear career plans.

Along the way, one student builder decided to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering and acquired the dean of engineering at Portland State University as her mentor. Another plans to enter a community college welding program. A third reversed his earlier decision to bypass college and will enroll in community college. Two decided to take GED exams after gaining confidence in basic math and geometry, which they used daily in building the boat. Yet another elected to return to regular high school.

"This was a true learning experience," said CFM partner Norm Eder who helped to spearhead and fund the innovative summer work program. "There were some bumps, but the students built a boat, a boat that will sail for years to come. That is a great accomplishment for these young people."

The effort was overseen by Wind & Oar Boat School, which provided the instructors and skill training, and WorkSystems Inc., which provided some of the funding and the students. 

In addition to practical lessons in working with fractions and compound angles, building the boat required the students to learn the value of teamwork. For one thing, the boat was designed by a French naval architect and the plans were rendered in metric, requiring the students to convert every measurement.

Eder, who became a regular visitor and pizza delivery man to the starving student-builders, said, "This is more than a boat. It is a wonderful success story. It has touched the lives of these students and opened the eyes of those who ask for a better skilled workforce about how programs like this can work."

According to Eder, the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Corporation has committed to a Vancouver boat-build later this year. The principal of Madison High School has asked Wind & Oar to do a build at the Northeast Portland school. And WSI plans to fund a new cohort of student-builders next month. The program has attracted sponsors, including Silver Eagle Manufacturing that provided custom marine bronze components for the student-built boat.