2017-03-23 / Front Page

Boat Builders Take on New Projects

Cedarville School Is One of Only Four in Country Teaching Wooden Boat Craft
By Jacob A. Ball

Standing in front of the 21-foot Nelson Zimmer-designed launch are (front row, from left) Roger Dunham, Ryan Root, Kaleb Voisin, Director of Education Pat Mahon, Director of Student Services and Marketing Ryan Hinnen, Rachel Conant, Francis Peet, Chris Ritchie, Gordon Kwiatkowski; (back) Ty Fairchild, and Jonas Johnson. Aside from Mr. Hinnen and Mr. Mahon, these are all first-year students at the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville. Standing in front of the 21-foot Nelson Zimmer-designed launch are (front row, from left) Roger Dunham, Ryan Root, Kaleb Voisin, Director of Education Pat Mahon, Director of Student Services and Marketing Ryan Hinnen, Rachel Conant, Francis Peet, Chris Ritchie, Gordon Kwiatkowski; (back) Ty Fairchild, and Jonas Johnson. Aside from Mr. Hinnen and Mr. Mahon, these are all first-year students at the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville. Inside the Great Lakes Boat Building School – now entering its 10th year of operation – a new generation of wooden boat-builders work from morning to night studying and honing a variety of techniques. In a class all by itself, this school in Cedarville is the only wooden boat building school on the Great Lakes or on freshwater, in general; only three other wooden boat-building schools exist in the United States.

Hands-on training and classroom instruction led by experienced instructors led to 100% job placement from last year’s graduating class. Now, their new school Web site designed to be user-friendly has won a national award, and hopes are that it will expand the school’s reach to even more interested individuals looking for a career.


The students are working on affixing the hull planks to the frame of a 21-foot Nelson Zimmer-designed launch Wednesday, February 22. The students are working on affixing the hull planks to the frame of a 21-foot Nelson Zimmer-designed launch Wednesday, February 22. Past students have come from 36 states in the U.S., three provinces in Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe. This school year, there are 17 first-year students, and five more who have returned for a second. Students this term come from as far away as Arkansas, Montana, and Maine, and as close as St. Ignace and Sault Ste. Marie.

Every year the students are required to complete a predetermined number of building projects – all built in a traditional fashion – to train them in a variety of techniques. This year the building projects include a 14-foot Whitehall rowboat, a 12-foot catboat, a 21-foot Nelson Zimmerdesigned launch boat, a 30-foot fiberglass replica of a diesel-powered Truscott fantail launch, and a 29.5- foot twin-engine mahogany runabout named the “Wilson Watercar.” Lance Wilson of Alabama, who has purchased several boats from the school in the past, specially commissioned the watercar, and the Truscott fantail launch replica is for the Inland Water Route Historical Society in Alanson.


Director of Student Services and Marketing Ryan Hinnen in front of a 12-foot Paul Gartside-designed catboat at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. Mr. Hinnen, the school, and Central States Media of Peoria, Illinois, received a gold award from the American Advertising Awards’ Peoria Ad Club for the school’s new Web site. Director of Student Services and Marketing Ryan Hinnen in front of a 12-foot Paul Gartside-designed catboat at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. Mr. Hinnen, the school, and Central States Media of Peoria, Illinois, received a gold award from the American Advertising Awards’ Peoria Ad Club for the school’s new Web site. The Wilson Watercar will be used as Mr. Wilson’s personal watercraft; previously he has purchased three of the Hackercrafts built by the school. This vessel will mimic the look of a traditional Canadian-built runabout, but will employ modern building techniques. The school is using Alaskan yellow cedar and African mahogany for the boat, along with marine plywood and spruce binders to finish off the floor, sides, and bottom. The powertrain for the boat will be two small-block V8s that will allow for an estimated maximum speed of at least 45 miles per hour. This boat represents the most advanced techniques used in the wooden boat building industry today, and is exactly what Great Lakes’ students will see once they enter the workforce.


Second-year students (from left) Jim Biernesser of Grand Haven, Mark Pugh of Rapid River, and Sam Hoffrichter of Sault Ste. Marie work on the steering console for the 30-foot diesel-powered fantail launch. This boat is a two-year project that is close to completion, and is being built for the Inland Water Route Historical Society of Alanson. Second-year students (from left) Jim Biernesser of Grand Haven, Mark Pugh of Rapid River, and Sam Hoffrichter of Sault Ste. Marie work on the steering console for the 30-foot diesel-powered fantail launch. This boat is a two-year project that is close to completion, and is being built for the Inland Water Route Historical Society of Alanson. Director of Student Services and Marketing Ryan Hinnen said that the school always wants to sell the vessels to avoid passing along the cost of materials to the students. About half of the boats that are built remain in the local area. Some are better suited for ocean voyages, though, and are purchased by parties from the East and West Coasts or the Gulf of Mexico.


The “Wilson Watercar” for Lance Wilson of Alabama was only recently begun, but will eventually be a 30-foot, triple cockpit, twin-engine mahogany runabout. The tape along the side of the frame pieces is used to take exact measurements with a laser before students continue with the building process at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. The “Wilson Watercar” for Lance Wilson of Alabama was only recently begun, but will eventually be a 30-foot, triple cockpit, twin-engine mahogany runabout. The tape along the side of the frame pieces is used to take exact measurements with a laser before students continue with the building process at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. The new Web site for the school that launched in September 2016 has received a gold award from the American Advertising Awards’ Peoria Ad Club in central Illinois. Mr. Hinnen is originally from the Peoria area and contacted marketing firm Central States Media to assist in the design of the new site. Mr. Hinnen said that all the content was created in house, and the agency helped them to convey it in the best way possible.


First-year students Rachel Conant (front) and Francis Peet work on the hull of a 14-foot Whitehall rowboat in the workshop at Great Lakes Boat Building School. The students are learning the lapstrake hull design where each plank overlaps the previous. First-year students Rachel Conant (front) and Francis Peet work on the hull of a 14-foot Whitehall rowboat in the workshop at Great Lakes Boat Building School. The students are learning the lapstrake hull design where each plank overlaps the previous. The goal of the redesign was to make the school’s site more userfriendly to encourage visitors to stay on the web page longer. The new site is optimized for smart phones and tablets to ensure that prospective students who may use these devices as their main computer are able to navigate the information. With this update, he hopes the site will appeal more to a younger crowd, but he added that students of all ages are always welcome.


While standing next to the 12-foot Paul Gartside-designed catboat Director of Student Services and Marketing Ryan Hinnen (left) speaks with first-year student Sam Hill at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. While standing next to the 12-foot Paul Gartside-designed catboat Director of Student Services and Marketing Ryan Hinnen (left) speaks with first-year student Sam Hill at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. The admissions process has already begun for September 2017, and an added bonus of the new Web site would be to see an increased number of prospective students. Mr. Hinnen said research has shown that people are spending more time on the site, on average, than on the old site.

“We think next year [could] be our largest class yet… there are currently about 20 people in the middle of the application process,” he said.

Mr. Hinnen began working at GLBBS in December 2015 when he moved to the Les Cheneaux area along with his wife. As a child, he vacationed in the Upper Peninsula with his family, and has enjoyed living where he used to travel.


At left: Second-year student Tom Cronan of St. Ignace (left) with instructor Rob Freel of Cedarville at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. At left: Second-year student Tom Cronan of St. Ignace (left) with instructor Rob Freel of Cedarville at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. “We wanted a change of pace, and when I saw this position, I jumped at it,” he said.

Four instructors at the school work alongside Mr. Hinnen. Patrick Mahon has been the lead instructor for the first-year students and director of education since 2007. Mr. Mahon has more than three decades of experience in wooden boat building, and his craftsmanship has helped to build the school’s reputation. Kris Kindt, a 2014 graduate of the twoyear program, works as the assistant instructor alongside Mr. Mahon with the first-year students.

Working primarily with the second year students are Rob Freel and Andy James. Mr. Freel is a local Les Cheneaux area resident and Mr. Hinnen refers to him as the school’s “master varnisher and finisher.” Mr. James was a longtime service member with the Air Force and Navy before joining the team. He is a native of southwest Michigan with an extensive background in woodworking, marine mechanical work, and handmade boats.


First-year students (from left) Ty Fairchild, Chris Ritchie, and Jonas Johnson steam-bending frames over the ribbands on the 21-foot Nelson Zimmer-designed launch at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. First-year students (from left) Ty Fairchild, Chris Ritchie, and Jonas Johnson steam-bending frames over the ribbands on the 21-foot Nelson Zimmer-designed launch at the Great Lakes Boat Building School. The educational program is divided into two separate nine-month programs. The Classic Woodworking and Traditional Boat Building Program is the first-year program. Second year students are guided through the construction of modern, mediumsized boats using techniques found in today’s most sophisticated workshops during the Comprehensive Career Boat Building Program. The second-year curriculum also covers marine electrical, engine systems, and repair/restoration.

“We believe our students are more valuable if they don’t pigeonhole themselves,” said Mr. Hinnen.

The curriculum is designed to make sure graduates are well prepared for the environment in any marine workshop. No prior experience is needed to succeed in the program. In fact, Mr. Hinnen said the instructors sometimes prefer new students to not have any background in the skills taught, because it makes it easier to avoid bad habits.

Teaching students the essentials of hand-tool woodworking always begins the first-year program before moving on to instruction in the proper use of power tools. Prior to any boat building, students’ final project in classic woodworking is to build their own shipwright’s tool chest. A tool chest was traditionally seen as a rite of passage in the trade. Apprentices in the past would build a tool chest to carry with them as they embarked on their journeymanship.

The classroom curriculum in boat building is divided into four quarters, classic woodworking/small boat building, two courses in traditional wooden boat building, and then composite wooden boat building. These courses combine classroom instruction from the schools’ four instructors with hands-on projects that increase in complexity as the students gain expertise. Some of the students decide to leave school after one year to find work, often because of the financial burden of taking a year away from working while going to school full-time, and the fact that these skills are in such demand that year-one graduates can still find employment easily. First-year graduates can expect to make between $13 to $18 per hour upon entering their first job.

Separate from the career training curriculum, the school also offers one- to three-day workshops, and a weeklong boat building class where participants walk away with a new boat. The school offers tours upon request, and encourages those interested to visit their Web site, glbbs.org.

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