Third Coast Boat Builders

In spring 2017, after the last of the ice has thawed, the Great Lakes Boat Building School will graduate its tenth class of boat builders.
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About 12 years ago, a group of residents from the Cedarville area, a small northern Lake Huron town, were concerned about the local economy. They put their heads together to think of solutions.

Cedarville — population 253 — isn’t exactly the middle of nowhere, but it sits on an eastern bank of the Upper Peninsula, just before it breaks apart into a smattering of islands. And so, it might not be the kind of place people would come for their education, but that was exactly what that initial group decided they would do: They built a wood boat building school.

Narayan Mahon Great Lakes Boat Building School In spring 2017, after the last of the ice has thawed, the Great Lakes Boat Building School will graduate its tenth class of boat builders. The idea worked. And more than that, its popularity and appeal appears to be growing. In May, the school will graduate its largest class yet, 22 students.

“Everything is going in the right direction,” notes Ryan Hinnen, director of student services for the school.

GLBBS currently is seeking national accreditation that will allow students to apply for financial aid. “That’s still a problem for some of our students,” explains Angeline Boulley, director of development, who added  the school also seeks grants to provide scholarships for some students.

Narayan Mahon Great Lakes Boat Building School Narayan Mahon Great Lakes Boat Building School Student

For the past two years, every one of its graduates found a job in the marine field. Andy James, one of the school’s instructors, said the students are so employable, sometimes it’s hard to get them to stick around for the final year of the two-year program. Schooling costs money, and after one year of training, they’re employable, with or without finishing the program.

It’s working for the students but also achieving the initial goal of helping the surrounding area.

In 2013, the school had researchers from Central Michigan University conduct a study to see how much money the school pumps into the economy each year. The total was about $700,000.

It’s a local success, but the wood boat-building world is not huge. That’s part of what makes the school unique. Before the Great Lakes Boat Building School, there were two well-known schools in the U.S., one on each coast — at least the coasts most Americans think of.

Narayan Mahon Great Lakes Boat Building School Process

There was the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building in Washington and The WoodenBoat School in Maine. If you were going to grow up to build boats, those are the places you’d hope to go. That was, until 2006, when GLBBS opened on the third coast and began to draw people from everywhere — even the staff.

Hinnen was working for a nonprofit in Illinois and looking to move elsewhere when he heard about the school. He didn’t know a thing about boats, and now he’s in love with the school. James, after 24 years flying planes in the Navy, was planning an easy retirement relaxing and building boats for fun when the school contacted him, and now, he says he loves getting up and going to work every day.

It’s working for the students
but also achieving the initial goal of helping the surrounding area.

Narayan Mahon Great Lakes Boat Building School Cedarville GLBBS students have been as young as 18 and as old as 72. In addition to the regular program, they also have a vocational program for people — many of them retirees — who learn the same lessons but don’t have to take the tests and don’t graduate. Every year, James said, there’s at least one doctor or Ph.D. who essentially says “to hell with it” and moves north to join the school.

“They’re tired of the rat race I suppose,” James said. 

The GLBBS facility is 12,000 square feet — right on Cedarville Bay. It has its own dock and library.

wood shavings“You walk into this place, and the first thing you notice is the smell of cedar and wood being cut and varnished, and then you see what they’re doing, and it’s amazing,” Hinnen said. “It kind of felt like I was at summer camp. It’s easy to get romantic about a boat and what it means and even easier to get excited thinking about building one yourself.”

Scott Atkinson lives in Grand Blanc and teaches writing and journalism at The University of Michigan-Flint.

Photography Courtesy Narayan Mahon, Great Lakes Boat
Building School

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