Sail Away

Close your eyes.

Come on, just for a second. Thank you. Now picture the most perfect summer seascape you can. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

What do you see? I’m willing to bet that your mental image, like mine, involves an elegant boat; sails billowing in the wind, golden wood gleaming in the sun. With all this in mind, it seemed only natural that I would learn how boats are built in these waning days before Labor Day.

A few weeks ago I was in Newport, Rhode Island and was lucky enough to spend a good part of a day at the International Yacht Restoration School. IYRS, as it is known, offers career training in three disciplines: composites technology, marine systems, and wooden boatbuilding & restoration in its facility right on the water.

While there were a few students hard at work, classes for IYRS’ two-year boatbuilding program were not in session, so Joel Senger, an IYRS graduate and boatbuilding instructor, served as my seaside sensei, walking and talking me through all the steps involved in restoring a wooden sailboat. While Joel and I discussed me returning in the fall to get my hands dirty, there is so much that goes into hand-building these boats that I think this introduction is just about all I could have handled for the first time out.

Joel (left) loved his experience as a student at IYRS so much he is now an instructor

Joel (left) loved his student experience at IYRS. Now he is an instructor

Here are some of the most interesting aspects of boatbuilding, from my non-boatbuilding perspective:

IYRS’ approach is very practical: students learn how to build the vessels by “restoring” them. They take a boat apart first, and that informs how they build it back up. This is the same approach I took while learning to upholster: I had to take the chair down to its frame to understand how it all goes back together. Of course, the homework at IYRS has to be sea-worthy, and my wing chair just has to sit in the corner and look pretty.


First the ribs of the boat are put in pace. Lots of clamps are used.

First the ribs of the boat are put in pace. Lots of clamps are used.

Joel explained that building a boat is simply a matter of “pushing wood to the max.” The wood has to be heated, using steam, to the point that it’s able to be bent. To do this, long pieces of wood are put in steamers, and it takes one hour to properly steam one inch of wood. On top of that, the wood is only warm enough to be manipulated for about ten minutes. I imagined being a new IYRS student must feel like a contestant on “Double Dare” (I’m really dating myself here, aren’t I?). That ten minutes probably flies by and before they know it—but hopefully after they have successfully shaped the wood—it is back to being, well…wood. Imagine the skill it takes to create a beautiful curve like this:

That wood is curved by hand...and steam

That wood is curved by hand…and steam

One of the most fascinating aspects of IYRS is out back. It’s the Coronet: a 130-foot long schooner yacht built in the 1880’s and is painstakingly being restored (i.e. re-built) by five people. Its scale is as impressive as its history. When someone pops out of the framework of the boat you get a first-hand look at exactly what went into building it 130 years ago because they are still doing it all by hand.


The 130-foot Coronet


All the work is being done by hand. For obvious reasons there is no timeline currently associated with the project


All the furniture that had been bolted down inside the Coronet, now lines the walkway that surrounds the work area, and that too proved to be a history lesson with the upholstery of some chairs fraying, revealing the horse hair used to cushion the seats (today in addition to springs, raw cotton or foam is used instead).

IYRS is a special place; I could tell that from just spending an afternoon there. Joel is a perfect example; he did not sail before coming to IYRS, and had never lived in Newport. Ten years later he is still here, teaching the boat builders of tomorrow. He says the program changed his life and now he gets to be a part of changing the lives of students ages 17 to 68. Students spend minimal time in the classroom, they learn by doing, and sometimes they just don’t want to go home at the end of the day. That is when you can tell when someone has a real passion for something, when there is nothing else they would rather be doing.

We should all be so lucky.


Thanks to Joel Senger for sharing his knowledge and time with me, and giving me a great introduction to boatbuilding and IYRS. I was not compensated for this post in any way.