By Jon Osborn
Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark
Cornwall, England —1782. Glowering gray skies mirror pewter-colored waves that slap the hull of a wooden rowboat. Salty spray hisses in the humid air as a crew of six men strain hard on their oars. Meanwhile, a coxswain on the tiller navigates the 32-foot-long craft known as a Cornish pilot gig toward a massive, creaking ship that pitches and rolls in the distance.
In addition to the stalwart crew, a steely-eyed sailor known as a “pilot” rides aboard the gig. Fresh from the mainland, this maritime guide-for-hire knows these treacherous waters like the backs of his calloused hands and will ferry the massive ship past submerged reefs and sandbars safely into port.
“Pull harder, men!” the pilot bellows over the wind, for he has everything to gain by boarding the vessel quickly. The pilot who arrives first has the best opportunity of landing the job.
Although Pilot Gigs originally came about centuries ago, enthusiasts like those at Michigan’s Great Lakes Boat Building School (GLBBS) are keeping their memories alive today.
In fact, Cedarville’s GLBBS was recently requested by Commander Kearns of the United States Navy to build a pilot gig for the historic ship, USS Constitution. “Old Ironsides,” as it’s affectionately known, was first commissioned in the 1700s. The finished pilot gig will be painted in traditional blue and yellow and christened August Glory, a title commemorating the victory of the USS Constitution over the French warship, HMS Guerriere, in August of 1812. August Glory is slated for completion this summer.
Using exotic, natural materials such as Iroko (an African hardwood) and Port Orford cedar, up to eight GLBBS students at a time have been working diligently on the project since January.
“Boat building is one trade that still relies heavily on hand tools,” says GLBBS Executive Director Patrick Mahon. As it is, many incoming students have no experience with wooden boats and very little wood working knowledge when they begin the school. However, with 15 years of teaching and 40 years of boat building under his belt, Mahon remains “astonished” at what students are able to accomplish after even nine months of formal training.
“Boat building schools are more important than ever these days,” he says. “When a perspective hire has attended a boat building school, an employer realizes two things: There’s no need to start from the beginning, and also that the applicant has made a long-term career commitment to building boats.”
GLBBS offers several programs for aspiring builders: Career, Comprehensive and a variety of Summer Workshops. The Career program spans two years and teaches techniques such as traditional Carvel and Lapstrake methods, as well as modern approaches such as wood/epoxy composite methods. The Comprehensive program is similar, but slightly abbreviated, though still covering many aspects of the Career program. Workshops such as the “Artisan” and “Build-Your-Own-Boat” classes feature topics including “Skin-on-Frame” kayaks, paddle-making classes and metal-working skills. While the male-to-female class ratio typically averages 10:1, Mahon notes, three women enrolled as students in the upcoming year.
Mahon is a “salty dog” in this line of work. Growing up in Arizona, he fell in love with boats and wood working, but obviously lived far from the ocean. After high school, he gravitated to the East Coast, prompted in part by the absence of water in his home state.
“One of my early mentors was a wooden boat builder,” Mahon shares. “Even though we were building furniture and cabinets for a living, we talked a lot about boats.” With his interest piqued, he travelled to London, England, and worked at a boatyard. Eventually Mahon moved back to America where he was hired by a boat shop in Maine, and consequently settled on the West Coast to pursue his passion.
Boat building dates back to the dawn of man, so there’s a rich history there. When asked what he enjoys the most about teaching this time-honored craft, Mahon doesn’t miss a beat:
“I love working with students who are career-oriented. I appreciate that a lot, in fact… someone who’s interested in doing this for the rest of their life.” ≈
Author and freelance writer Jon Osborn resides in Holland., Michigan BLUE Magazine
Photography by Scott Johnson & illustrations by Gary W. Odmark