When Brianna Wickard first joined the boat-building apprentice program at Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, she had what she describes as a “confidence issue.”
“Do not let me touch any tools,” she warned. The 18-year-old had moved to Amesbury from Upstate New York less than two years before. She had no building skills or maritime knowledge. “I think I was 14 the first time I saw the ocean,” she says.
And she’d never even heard of Lowell’s Boat Shop. That is, until she participated in “Math on the River,” a partnership between the shop and Amesbury High School, which teaches students hands-on math skills by rowing out onto the Merrimack River with sextants and other navigational tools. “We learned trig by actually going out on the river, collecting data, and going back to the classroom,” Wickard says.
That experience “got my toes wet,” she says, and got her interested in Lowell’s Boat Shop. By early December, she’d joined the apprentice program, which teaches high school students how to hand-build the same traditional wooden boats—dories and skiffs—the shop has been making since 1793.
Wickard spent much of her senior year building a wooden dory with her fellow apprentices, using the same traditional hand tools that the shop has used for centuries. And her fear of those tools is long gone. “You build the boat as much as you build your own awareness and confidence,” she says. That’s what Graham McKay, executive director of Lowell’s Boat Shop, had in mind when the shop first began its apprentice program in 2012. “If they gain marketable woodworking skills, that’s great,” he says. But really the program is about much more than that. “I would hope that it would help them in a time in their lives when they’re maturing, and give them some direction and, ideally, a lot of self-confidence.”
The shop, a National Historic Landmark and museum that’s been a working boat shop since 1793, has always had middle- and high school-aged kids hanging around, eager to learn and work on projects, McKay says. He was one of those kids himself 20 years ago. But it wasn’t until Lowell’s Boat Shop was selected to build a historic whaleboat replica for Mystic Seaport in Connecticut that a formal apprentice program took shape.
“It didn’t seem like we were maximizing the project by just raising money to do it and then having professional boat builders, who already know how to build a boat, do it,” McKay says. Instead, they established the apprentice program, raised money to run it, and built the whaleboat with high school students, who worked under the tutelage of master boat builders.
The program was such a success that it has continued each school year since, with students building boats for the shop to use in its many camps and other on-the-water programs. Now, the apprentice program has three levels: Junior apprentice, for grades 8 through 9; apprentice, for grades 10 through 12; and senior apprentice, for program “graduates.” A waterfront apprentice program was added this year, too.
“We run it as we would run a job,” McKay says. Interested students must fill out an application, submit a resumé, have a face-to-face interview, and commit to being at the shop two to three days a week after school. McKay says the program isn’t “militant” about attendance, and he understands that high school kids have a lot going on. The shop might lose an apprentice for a couple of months during basketball season, for instance. But for the most part, students must commit to the program. When the apprenticeship has ended, students must also make an oral presentation about their experience to a group, whether it’s a school assembly, the shop’s board of directors, or even potential donors.
The apprentice program has no prerequisites, other than a desire to be at the shop.
“I don’t care about skills or anything,” McKay says. He knows that most of the students aren’t going to become professional woodworkers or boat builders. But there are other, less tangible things, that they’ll carry with them forever: self-confidence and agency; a sense of place and community; an understanding of Amesbury’s boat-building heritage; and a love of boats (McKay says the kids now post vacation pictures of cool boats on their Instagram accounts).
In turn, the apprentices become “ambassadors of the shop,” helping to recruit other apprentices, building awareness, and perhaps, becoming lifelong friends of institution.
“The greatest reward for me personally, and the greatest reward for the shop, is having young people involved,” McKay says. “And maybe, knock on wood, one of them will develop the interest that I did and carry on…carry the torch, I guess.”
After the official apprenticeship season ends, many of the kids stick around. Although the apprentice season runs during the school year, kids can still be found at the shop over the summer, helping out or even working on their own projects.
One of those students is Will Johnson of Newburyport, a 16-year-old junior at The Governor’s Academy and an apprentice graduate who spent the past summer building his own 16-foot skiff. Taking a weeklong class at Lowell’s Boat Shop the summer before “got me hooked” on boatbuilding, Johnson says, so he signed up for the apprentice program, and found a new love. His apprenticeship ended in the spring, but Johnson wasn’t ready to say goodbye to boatbuilding.
“I kind of took the skills that I learned from that, and I was like, ‘OK, I gotta do something,’” he says. “I wanted to continue with my passion and build my own boat.”
It’s this kind of passion that keeps the shop running. As a nonprofit, the apprentice program runs entirely on grants and donations from individuals and community organizations like the Provident Community Foundation, Institution for Savings Charitable Foundation, and Newburyport Five Cent Savings Charitable Foundation. This year, it received a Maritime Heritage Grant to run the program.
But even with that enthusiasm and passion, McKay says it’s hard for the nonprofit shop to get the word out about its programs, even among locals. “We still do have a hard time finding apprentices,” he says, and wishes more students would apply. Those who do discover the shop, though, discover a lot more than boats. “I like to talk about how rich of an experience it is,” Wickard says. “It’s bigger than me.”