Old World Art – Wooden Boat School Preserves Seafaring Crafts and Skills

Havilah Hawkins is an outspoken advocate of “trailing edge” technology. He coined this phrase referring to the old ways of doing things that have been left behind and once were at the cutting edge of innovation.

A lifelong sailor and fourth-generation schoonerman, the Sedgwick native teaches at WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, where old boat-building techniques are taught, made relevant and celebrated in an ever-modernizing world.

“If we don’t forget it, that trailing edge technology can be something that keeps us going,” Hawkins said. “We can learn from what they did.”

The idea of the “trailing edge” is the guiding concept underlying WoodenBoat School’s seasonal program in its 39th year. The concept is interwoven in the scores of classes focused on wooden boat-construction and seamanship as well as the practice of other marine-related arts.

Founded in 1981, WoodenBoat boasts more than 60 instructors for its program, which starts in June and runs through mid-fall on and off its 64-acre campus. The one- to three-week courses range widely. You can spend a week aboard a brigantine sailing the Maine coast, construct and take home your own stitch-and-glue kayak, learn the basics of marine blacksmithing or even dive into woodcarving.

Havilah Hawkins in his building shed.

On the seaside campus overlooking Center Harbor, participants also have the option of taking their meals and living on campus.

“A number of folks come from places where they don’t have access to water, or a shop, or professional tradespeople … here you have all of that,” WoodenBoat Director Rich Hilsinger described. “You find yourself immersed in a community of 50 or 60 like-minded souls.”

The school’s motto is “Access to Experience,” and the success of their courses relies on its teaching staff’s expertise.

Hawkins, for one, doesn’t adhere to a rigid lesson plan for his courses covering coastal sailing and recreational rowing. He draws from the wealth of his experience on the water to tailor classes directly to students.

“I like to sit down with [the students] and tell them that I really don’t have a curriculum, that I want to make sure they are getting out of this course what they came for,” the sailor said. “I ask each one of them: what is it you are trying to learn here?”

Luckily, Hawkins is well equipped to answer their questions. Born in Castine, he got his training early on taking vacationing clientele for cruises along the Maine coast on his father’s schooner the Mary Day. Eventually, he constructed his own 50-foot, gaff-rigged sloop named Vela. Vela serves as his floating classroom for those who want a hands-on experience learning seamanship.

Havilah Hawkins’ ship Vela. The vessel is used as a “floating classroom” for members of his sailing courses.

This summer Hawkins is teaching a new course. He came up with a week-long session called “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to teach human-powered boating. Over the years, he has found that many students think they know how to row, but few practice the proper form or advanced technique.

“To row well is not easy,” the schooner captain explained. “You can do all kinds of things with an oar that are above and beyond just rowing, to the point where it is more like a dance. It becomes an art form.”

At its core, WoodenBoat School is a place to learn a craft thoroughly from the people who know it best, a brief apprenticeship of sorts. These old ways of doing things often have been replaced by modern practices.

Hilsinger, though, hopes WoodeBoat can help people realize the traditions’ value and enduring importance, on both a practical and personal level.

“The satisfaction that one gains from making things with one’s hands, computers will never bring that same type of satisfaction,” he said. “I know for a fact that [doing this] is essential for us as humans. We need it.”

To learn more, call 359-4651 or visit thewoodenboatschool.com.