Rocking the Boat students take on most complex task yet

After 20 years and 49 boats, Rocking the Boat students are taking on their most complex project yet.

                                                        From left to right: Michael Edward Harris, Michael Cruz, Kiara Hesselbach, and Randy Atkins

Boatbuilding organization looks to replicate legendary, 102-year-old sailboat

As the students gathered in a circle at the back of the brightly lit construction shop, their focused facial expressions were replaced by ones of excitement the moment they were told to get to work. Chatter broke out immediately, and laughter echoed through the room as students put on facemasks and inserted earplugs to drown out the equipment – but not the tunes. One student tuned a radio hanging on the wall, and before long, Rihanna’s “Needed Me” blasted over the sounds of machinery and hammering.

After 20 years and 49 boats, Rocking the Boat students are taking on their most complex project yet as they prepare to build a Herreshoff 12.5 — a sailboat designed by the American yacht designer Nathanael Greene Herreshoff in 1914. Herreshoff’s boats dominated yacht racing from 1890 to 1920 — often referred to as “the Herreshoff Era.” Today, his 12.5, along with hundreds of Herreshoff designs, is still widely praised, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Herreshoff’s alma mater, will hold an exhibition about his legacy in 2017.

“We were trying to come up with a design that would be really great for teaching kids how to sail,” said Adam Green, founder and executive director of Rocking the Boat on Edgewater Road. “It just so happens that it’s a really famous boat that lots and lots of people love.”

Known for its stability and its sailing ease, the boat has a fixed keel that contains 735 pounds of lead to prevent it from capsizing. According to Green, this is the first time since the program started in 1995 that the students would be building a fixed-keel boat, which will require them to source the lead, melt it, and pour it into the keel’s wooden mold. The organization is currently working out the safest way to go about the keel building process.

“I was a bit nervous, but at the same time excited to try a new experience,” said Kiara Hesselbach, 17, a senior in St. Jean Baptiste High School in Manhattan and a Rocking the Boat apprentice.

The unembellished, white wooden frame of the boat that is currently being held up by jack stands at the Rocking the Boat headquarters is at this point still an “empty shell,” according to Michael Robinson, 77, a volunteer who has been with the organization for about 12 years. There is a lot to be done if they want to want meet their goal and complete the boat by the end of 2017, including building the seats, covering the deck with wood, and bolting the keel to the bottom. Until now, kids in the program have only built open boats with simpler structures.

The boat, which has yet to be named, is in the early stages of the building process and has already caused the students some unexpected challenges, according to Francisco Cabrera, 16, a junior at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, who has been with Rocking the Boat since spring 2015.

“The ribs and inside, most of them broke — they got weak,” Cabrera said. “Now, we’ve got to repair it and it’s delaying us, but it’s nothing that we can’t fix. We wanted a challenge, we wanted to make something original.” This is Cabrera’s first boat as an apprentice — a paid job-skills program that teaches students advanced carpentry and environmental science skills. These building techniques are more challenging, he said, but will give the boat a finer shape.

According to Justin Nieves, 20, a senior at Manhattan High School and a Rocking the Boat apprentice who has been with the organization since 2012, these unique adjustments that include using strip planks, garboard planks and whiskey planks will also make the boat more secure and help it sail faster.

But the students are not only learning the technicalities of boat building; they’re also gaining real life and educational skills in the process.

Sheronda Petgrave, 17, a senior at the Birch Wathen Lenox School in Manhattan and a Rocking the Boat apprentice who has been with the organization since spring 2015, said she learned how to “loft” in the program — a drafting technique used to draw and cut pieces for hulls and keels. Now she’s instructing the younger participants on those same skills. Petgrave, who was responsible for the table of offsets, a chart of measurements used to find the boat’s dimensions, said she measured the width on the plans and converted the dimensions using a ruler, after which the actual boat building began.

“I had never heard of a Herreshoff boat before, but it’s a great opportunity to be a part of this,” she said. “It’s expanding my horizons.”

While the Herreshoff represents a “milestone” for the organization as its 50th boat, Green said that doesn’t surpass the success the organization has had with its students.

“It’s a symbol of how much we’ve accomplished, but it’s not as important as the fact that 100 percent of our kids who graduated high school have gone to college,” he said. “If we were in the business of producing boats, then it would be a bigger deal. We’re actually in the business of developing kids.”