Education / Environment

Students build a piece of the past

Rachel Brown

Christian Colon and Robert Martinez working on the strong back.

Rocking the Boat project recreates Little Juliana

On hands and knees, using a pencil and a metal yardstick, Steven Portillo was in the beginning stages of “lofting,” marking precise measurements on a 30-foot wooden board. Meanwhile, three of his co-workers leveled the strongback, a wooden structure on which a 25-foot Whitehall-style rowing boat will be built this year.

While this is a typical activity for teens at Rocking the Boat, this will not be just any boat. It will be an exact replica of the Little Juliana, originally built in 1804 by Col. John Stevens, and the first steamboat propelled by twin screws, or two counter-rotating propellers. Stevens’ high-pressure steam engine and propeller design was decades ahead of its time, and became the basis for modern steamships.

More than 200 years later, students in the Job Skills Program at Rocking the Boat are teaming up with students at the colonel’s namesake college in Hoboken, N.J. – the Stevens Institute of Technology — to rebuild that historic steamboat. Stevens students will construct the engine, and Rocking the Boat youth will build the hull.

The idea for the project is attributed to Carl Kriegeskotte, a documentary filmmaker and steamboat aficionado. He approached the Stevens Institute as well as Rocking the Boat at the suggestion of a boating friend. One of Kriegeskotte’s hopes is to shine a light on Stevens’ most significant contribution to maritime transportation, which is often overshadowed by Robert Fulton’s steamboat trip up the Hudson River four years later.

Having worked in alternative education in the past, Kriegeskotte said he knows and values the kind of youth development that organizations like Rocking the Boat do. Although the organization’s mission is to empower youth, they also emphasize professionalism and good craftsmanship. “If they didn’t build such high quality boats, we wouldn’t be working with them,” Kriegeskotte said.

This collaboration with the Stevens Institute demonstrates the growing reputation of Rocking the Boat, a non-profit organization founded in 1998 by Adam Green, the executive director. The Little Juliana build marks the first time the organization has collaborated with an academic institution, though there have been many other partnerships over the past decade, including a 29-foot whaleboat constructed for Mystic Seaport; a replica of the first tender built in the New World; and three boats for Historic Hudson Valley, built onsite in 1700s garb.

Although the Stevens Institute was initially leaning towards contracting professionals to build the hull, they ended up going with Rocking the Boat since Green secured a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to cover more than half of the total $125,000 project budget. “Economically, it was a no brainer,” said Dr. Raju Datla, research associate professor at Stevens. “But now, I like the group so much.” Datla is excited to expose Rocking the Boat students to the fields of naval and mechanical engineering.

“The neatest thing about it is that our kids are doing real work that will have meaning beyond Rocking the Boat,” said Green. “Also, the exchange they’ll have with college students at Stevens is really exciting.”

The Job Skills Program, which hires up to 12 apprentices per year, is the second tier for students at the organization. Students must complete a minimum of two semesters in the Boat Building program, be in their junior or senior year in high school and demonstrate accountability, consistency and integrity. Students apply and interview for this wage-earning apprenticeship program.

“It’s a gateway to real-life opportunities and jobs that I can get later on in life,” explained Robert Martinez of Hunts Point. “It inspires me, and motivates me to learn more,” said Kevin Flores of Longwood, a junior in high school.

Indeed, the organization has been able to measure its success by more than the number of boats launched. Last year, all 12 of the high school seniors in Rocking the Boat programs graduated, and all 12 are now enrolled in college. In comparison, the citywide high school graduation rate was 61 percent in 2013, according to the Department of Education.

Since there were no designs for the boat, Alan Gilbert, an independent naval architect, is drawing them up based on only two existing photos of the original vessel. As soon as Gilbert sent the first diagrams in late September, apprentices began lofting, the process by which full-sized patterns are drawn on a large piece of wood from the paper plan. This helps to make sure the lines are all “fair,” or smooth, at varying points along the hull of the boat. After lofting, the students will make patterns and molds for the construction of the boat.

“Apprentices usually build one Whitehall per semester and do a launch party. But this will be a much longer process,” said Michael Grundman, the director of the Job Skills program, who is leading the apprentices through the build.

archival photo of the original Little Juliana.

The original steam engine from 1804 has survived and is at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Stevens students visited it there last semester to take photographs and measurements, and have started building a replica out of original materials. They hope to finish the engine by January 2015.

Once the hull and engine are completed, Rocking the Boat and Stevens’ students will test out their vessel in a scale towing tank, a large pool-like basin, at the Stevens Institute. After that, they will continue to make any needed adjustments before taking the steamboat replica out on the Hudson River, where the original 1804 trip was made.

While the boat design is 200 years old, there is novelty. This will be the first complete replica of the Little Juliana. And it’shigh school junior Christian Colon’s first build as an apprentice. For Portillo, a high school senior, “This will be my ninth boat, but it’ll be my first steamboat.”


The story was revised on Oct. 12 to note that the project is Rocking the Boat’s first collaboration with an academic institution. The prior version stated that it was its first collaboration with “an institution,” but Rocking the Boat has been teaming with other institutions on its boat building projects since 2004. 

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