Skerry at St. Maarten Sailing School

On the tiny island of St. Maarten in the northeastern Caribbean, big things are happening for youngsters working under the direction of Garth Steyn and his team from the St. Maarten Marine Trades Association and the St. Maarten Sailing School. The program is ambitiously dubbed “Build Your Future,” and after only a few months it is already well on the way to helping students at five high schools set a course not only for their own futures, but also for that of a thriving marine trades community on the 35-square-mile, dual-nationality atoll.

Last week, Garth, SMMTA Youth Sailing Director and head of the St. Maarten Sailing School, was recognized by the St. Maarten Hospitality & Trade Association with the prestigious Crystal Pineapple Award for Outstanding Community Service for his work developing and implementing the program. But if you asked him, he’d quickly say that the important achievement is that of his students.

Using Skerry kits from Chesapeake Light Craft, students from the Caribbean International Academy, St. Dominic School, Milton Peters College, St. Maarten Academy (Vocational) and the Secondary Vocational Education SBO school have been building a fleet of 15-foot rowing/sailing craft, and learning to use them once they’re afloat.

One by one, the boats have been taking shape in the hands of these youngsters, each school group under the tutelage of an experienced adult mentor. One mentor is well-known Caribbean catamaran builder Dougie Brooks, who is working with the Academy while they build their boat at the school’s Marine Club.

Working with Garth and fellow mentor Rein Korteknie, the SBO students started building a boat in a shed belonging to the water sports company Aqua Mania in late October. The first test boat, christened Aqua Maniac in honor of the company’s support, was started by an earlier class of SBO students to demonstrate the viability of the program concept and now sails as the flagship of the growing fleet.

SBO Students Building a Skerry!Mentor Frank Boekhout used to be a teacher at MPC, but in this endeavor he’s helping the students at St. Dominic build their boat at the school. Meanwhile, over at MPC, students are building their Skerry this month in place of taking time out of school on an internship.

Of course, once the boats are launched and sailing, well, the sense of accomplishment for the kids is huge and the fun really begins as the proud – and grinning – boatbuilders take to the waters around their island, where expensive yachts often outnumber local craft these days and many of the island children don’t have ready access to boats.

The six boats are nearly all complete and should be ready well ahead of schedule for their first on-water competition as part of the events leading up to the internationally-acclaimed Heineken Regatta in early March, but the “Build Your Future” program won’t end there.

Since the goals include revitalizing the practice of boatbuilding that once thrived on St. Maarten and encouraging local youngsters to seek employment in the marine trades, along with spurring long-term interest in the sea and the opportunities to be found there, Garth says he is confident that this first year will be a success, allowing the project to become self-perpetuating and continue for many more years to come. Next year, he explained, each group of student boatbuilders and their successors will have this year’s boat to maintain and to use to practice their seafaring skills, while they build a new boat to add to the fleet.

“The Build Your Future initiative will grow exponentially each year,” Garth explained, “and help train more and more students in the necessary skills to succeed in life, and hopefully start a career in the marine industry.”

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In Litchfield, Connecticut, far from the warm Caribbean trade winds, faculty and students at the Forman School are using the "winterim" between Thanksgiving and winter break to step out of their classrooms and focus on special projects, including boatbuilding.

Forman is a small co-educational college preparatory school for bright kids with learning differences, so non-traditional school experiences have a deliberate importance in the school’s programming; more than a couple weeks’ study break, Winterim is designed to give students experience in and opportunity for applying skills that lay a foundation for their talents as innovators, entrepreneurs, creators, and leaders.

Students Build CLC Kits at the Forman School in Connecticut
Last year's Forman School boatbuilding class, featuring Chesapeake and Matunuck kayaks.

Forman has offered traditional boatbuilding as an added activity during the regular school term for six years, and students have undertaken some very ambitious projects spanning a range from canoes to family fishing boats. This year’s winter projects include designing and building a small sailboat with a fixed keel, and by next year CAD skills will be added to the program as the students use boatbuilding to apply what they learn in math classes as they soak up the traditional steam bending, milling, construction, and finishing techniques passed along by faculty advisor Wendy Welshans from her own apprenticeship experiences.

Students Build Kayaks at the Forman SchoolDuring this year’s Winterim, the students are engaged in a total-immersion, full-time, all-out sprint to take their projects start-to-finish over just two and a half weeks, making CLC kits a natural for the program. This year, there are eight Eastport Prams coming together in the Forman Boat Shed, but in past years they’ve had pods of CLC kayaks as their focus. “We could add more if our studio was bigger,” Wendy said, explaining that student enthusiasm for the boatbuilding program currently is running higher than space allows.

For senior Travis Block, boatbuilding has become more than a way to give practical, tangible application to mathematical formulas and geometric theorems. The activity in the boat shop caught his attention during his first visit to Forman, even before he enrolled, and drew him like a magnet. Once he enrolled, he didn’t hesitate to dive in head first.

“The minute he walked in, his eyes just lit up,” Wendy said. “Within half an hour, he was completely involved.”

Three years later, Travis is a confident young leader whose advice other students seek and whose own boat they’re looking at for guidance as they work on their own prams.

“It was a real draw for me,” Travis says. “It’s hard to get me out of the boat shop. It’s really great there, it just relieves all the stress from school.”

More than that, it’s pointing his way toward a future in marine engineering or outdoor education while he hones his innate leadership skills.

Along with the traditional building program, which can be elected in lieu of a sport during the fall and winter, the school also has an active kayaking program in the spring where the boatbuilders from past years’ Winterim kayak builds can put the fruits of their labor to practical use.


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Across the country in Elk Grove, California, students at Laguna Creek High School's Green Energy Technology Academy took home trophies in the Northern California Solar Regatta last May after finishing first using a purpose-built boat they crafted from a custom kit from CLC.

John Harris posted a lively and colorful description of the project and its evolution in his blog, The Life of Boats, a few months ago, but we thought it was worth another look, especially alongside the other two examples of what young people can do with their own innate energy and enthusiasm matched up with dedicated adult guidance and a boat to build.