Reinventing yourself: How a traditional wooden boat-building school added diesel engines to its curriculum without losing the smell of sawdust


About four years ago, the board of the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building decided to take a good, hard look at its curriculum. The 37-year-old school had made a name for itself in the local Port Townsend, Wash., community for graduating bright, competent students, but the focus on building just wooden boats was limited in a community where one out of five jobs is in the traditional marine industry.

“We went through a strategic planning process to decide who we wanted to be,” Betsy Davis, executive director, told TradeOnlyToday. “We’d asked employers in the boating industry what they’d thought about the curriculum and they said they loved our graduates. They could read patterns and knew how a boat goes together. But they said we needed to offer more.”

The school had grown over the decades, having moved locations twice, and finally settled on a waterfront location in nearby Port Hadlock. It was integral to the community. A former mayor of Port Townsend said it was like comparing Stanford University to Silicon Valley in terms of supplying craftsmen to the local industry. But it was fundamentally a wooden-boat building school and most people wanted to keep it that way.

The school’s program advisory committee, made up of local marine industry businesses, came up with a plan to supplement the courses without infringing on the core wooden-boat program. It developed a separate six-month Marine Intensive course that takes a comprehensive approach to marine systems and covers topics such as electrical, engines, corrosion, hydraulics, plumbing, refrigeration and more. The school also now offers four one-week Marine Systems Intensives to industry professionals. The idea was to offer a course that would make students more marketable, especially during a time when skilled workers were in short supply.

Davis said there were concerns initially about how the new program might impact the culture of the school, where lathes, jig saws and the smell of wood were much more common than diesel engines.

“I wouldn’t call it resistance to change, but people around here said we don’t want to grow so fast that we lose the quality of our programs,” said Davis. “We were founded by a shipwright on the idea of craftsmanship through wooden boat building, and we wanted to keep that. We decided to do everything slow and steady.”

The new program needed funds and the board decided it would take $500,000 to launch the new Marine Systems program. The school had also grown beyond its two historic waterfront sheds over the years, but it would need to add even more to accommodate the new program. Several of the waterfront sheds were also in need of repair, and with other growth initiatives. Davis said the school needed to find a million dollars on top of the funds for the new program. That goal was achieved.

The board and staff had to learn how to raise funds, and they did it slowly at first, holding fundraisers that netted $50,000 and then applying for grants for the historic preservation of the buildings. Galster House, one of the buildings it recently acquired, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Davis said the Ajax Café was a popular eatery within Galster House, so many local community members donated so that it would be revived. “We really saw the community come together in these fund-raisers,” says Davis. The school launched a magazine called “Hull-Raiser” to keep its alumni, the community and donors informed about students and activities.

The state of Washington, realizing the marine industry’s importance to the local community, put in the first $100,000 for the Marine Systems program and Davis said the rest was raised through grants and private donations. The school hired two instructors, Kevin Ritz and Walt Trisdale, to lead the program. Local marine businesses donated equipment and marine supplies.

“Eighteen months ago, there was nothing, but now we have 10 students who are moving through the program,” says Davis. “Some of the students in our year-long boat-building program stay on for six months and do this to get more training.”

While the culture has changed as the school has grown, Davis said that the new program has become popular. “Our boat-building instructors like it because they’re learning new systems,” she says. “It’s bringing new expertise to everyone.”

Davis maintains an optimistic outlook as the school continues to grow. The staff has become much better at fundraising and finding grants. It has even found name-brand sponsors like Patagonia to help fund the restoration projects. Some of its alumni were among the carpenters and other trades people repairing the historic buildings this summer.

“We're growing, so there's a lot of need for these facilities,” says Davis. “The boat school helps train additional people for jobs in the marine industry, and we couldn't do that without the facility. The reason we can navigate this change is that we all share the same values on craftsmanship.” 


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