The Boats of Boatbuilding

Warren Barker, Boatbuilding & Restoration Senior Instructor

Though it might strike some as an odd observation, I am not sure people realize how important the actual boat is to the delivery of the Boatbuilding & Restoration program at IYRS.  Over the years, the first year of the two year program has almost exclusively revolved around the restoration of the Beetlecat, the 12’ cat rigged sailboat the Beetle family began building to ease the transition from whaleboat production to recreational sail.  Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021, the Beetlecat is still produced in Wareham, Massachusetts by the Beetle Boat Shop - a testimony to its popularity and sound design. Though this rich history adds a bit of weight to the argument for the restoration of a boat, numbers do help when developing a course of instruction and there is nothing like popularity to create numbers. A steady stream of Beetlecats have passed through IYRS almost from the school’s inception.   On the other hand, these cats were developed by boatbuilders who supplied the New Bedford whaling industry and their shape and complexity reflect the knowledge and skill of the builders.  Tearing a tired but well built boat down to its bare bones and rebuilding it affords an immediate appreciation of that knowledge and skill.  Tough to take apart, tough to rebuild, the Beetlecat makes for an excellent mandrel on which to drive home fundamental boatbuilding skills. It is also of a scale that allows other aspects of the discipline to be pursued in the course of that first year.  There are other designs that might fit the bill but, at this moment, none that can guarantee a fine learning experience and a fine sail at the end of nine months.

Sometimes a fine pasture oak just beckons you for a climb.  Deeply rooted with heavy low hanging branches you can get up a ways with plenty to hold on to. Scooting out along a branch with a firm grasp on the one above gives a bit of a thrill, the view widening as you ease further out.  If the first year of the two year boatbuilding program sets down the roots, the second year gets the boatbuilding student out on the branches.  Boats of multiple sizes, builds, designs, designers, of both sail and power have come through the doors at IYRS.  Each one represents a chance, a chance to pursue its history, construction, and, ultimately, its performance.  Now the boat drives the experience, not along a fine tuned course of instruction, but along a course devised by student and faculty to return the vessel to the water. That particular vessel provides a particular experience and in its rebuilding or building saves the boat, the building record, the techniques unique to builder and designer, and, finally, celebrates the skills that constructed it in the first place. Investigation and interpretation become  key elements in the process.  Sometimes the investigative tangents lead the students quite a way out on that limb or, at least, to multiple museums.  Soon, however, it is  back to the fundamentals to get the job completed by June. 

The students at IYRS once restored a boat named Chance, a Herreshoff designed and built Fishers Island 23.  At thirty four feet a bit ambitious, the boat sent them way out on a limb but afforded a remarkable opportunity to see how it was done and what they could do. Aptly named, they took it at its word and pulled it off. An exquisite Herreshoff dinghy, Gem, slid into the water one Launch Day.  It too aptly named, it was no less of an achievement; the bigger splash need not have the bigger impact as a project unfolds.  Favorites?  I can’t say; it has been a remarkable spectrum.  I will say it is still a thrill to slide out along that branch with a new boat underway, taking a look about, then sliding down the trunk to Launch Day to see what she can do.