Education / Environment / Parks

Building a boat from history

Photo by Joaquin Cotten

Rocking the Boat turns a fallen log from the Bronx Botanical Garden into the Night Owl, a river-worthy vessel.

Rocking the Boat's latest venture takes advantage of nature's wrath.

By Azriel J. Relph

On September 11, 2009, an autumn storm’s 32-mile per hour winds tore through the Bronx and brought down a white oak tree in the New York Botanical Garden.

The tree had begun growing 265 years ago, while the Bronx was still Colonial farmland. It was a sapling before the Declaration of Independence was written. Now, the Hunts Point-based non-profit–where young people learn how to build boats and navigate local waters and help clean up the Bronx River–is using the 20 foot long planks sawn from the body of the tree to build a sailboat.

The Bronx hasn’t supplied wood to build boats in a long time—not “since people were building boats because they needed to,” said Tony Archino, boatbuilding director at Rocking the Boat.

But Jessica Arcate Schuler, manager of the forest at the Botanical Garden, who had worked with Archino on the Bronx River Alliance Ecology Team, made the donation of the wood possible. When she came upon the fallen tree, she said, “I thought, ‘Wow that’s really solid. That could be the next tree for Rocking the Boat.’”

In November, 2009, Schuler arranged to use the crane the Garden had rented to raise up its Christmas tree to load the giant oak onto a truck and drive it to Rocking the Boat’s headquarters next door to Hunts Point Riverside Park. There, the tree was cut into boards and set to dry for a year.

This fall, the boat-building students put the wood to work. They used everything from large, loud power tools to tiny hand tools to make their sailboat. They built molds to create the shape of the boat, then steamed the planks until they were soft and bent them across the molds.

Week by week a boat took shape.

On December 17, Rocking the Boat celebrated the end of the fall semester with a party. There was a buffet and live music; students presented hands-on demonstrations for the friends, family and neighbors who filled the 6,000 square-foot shop.

The environmental job skills students turned a classroom into the “Experience the Bronx River” room. Young children who might be future students stood on step stools to peer into microscopes and examine local fish.

The on-water program set up a table displaying the work they’d done on the Bronx River over the semester. Pages of logs held meticulous records of their cleanup efforts. The entry for December 9 showed that they collected six plastic bags and 25 bottle caps from the river.

But the biggest display by far was the 20-foot long sailboat-in-progress at the front of the shop. The boat lay upside down along a table called a strongback. The last of its unstained white oak planks had been laid across it the day before the party.

Halfway through the event, Archino got on the microphone and told students, parents and anyone else who wanted to help to gather around the boat.

“This is a historic moment for this boat,” Archino said. He then directed the group to lifting the half-finished vessel and turn it over. The flip to right-side up was the final step in the semester, and the halfway point in the process of building the boat.

The party also marked the departure of one of Rocking the Boat’s most prolific students. Elsie Gonzalez, 22, had been with the group for six years–longer than anyone other than the organization’s founder Adam Green. The historic sailboat was the last of the many boats she has built in the Bronx, first as a student and later as a program apprentice helping younger builders.

Gonzalez is going on to pursue new skills at Nontraditional Employment for Women, a group that trains and places women in careers in construction, with utility companies and in maintenance.

Video testimonials from the three boat-building directors Gonzalez trained under were played on screen, followed by hugs and tears with her fellow students.

“Rocking the Boat will always be a second home for me,” she said. “I’ll miss working with the students. Every person you meet has something to teach you, whether they are a teenager or an adult.”

The new and returning students who come to Rocking the Boat for the Spring semester will put the final touches on the sail boat that Gonzalez helped start–the mast, sails paint and more.

“It’s not about what we’re doing for them,” said Archino, “it’s what they are able to do for themselves here.”

If all goes to plan, the sapling that sprouted in the Bronx 265 years ago, will set sail as a boat built by local teens on Saturday, June 11, 2011.

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