A Bristol Boatbuilding Program Helps Apprentices Chart New Courses
Set along the shores of the Pemaquid River, the Carpenter’s Boat Shop teaches apprentices to sail, build boats, and find new paths forward.
Last year, during the height of the pandemic, Arielle Edelman, who had been working for a film production company in New York City for over four years, found herself stuck in her apartment with less and less work. So, she turned to the pastime that got many through quarantine: surfing the internet. “I had always wanted to learn woodworking and initially thought I’d take a class in New York while staying at my job,” says Edelman, “but once I started to do some research, so many doors of possibilities started to open.”
That’s how Edelman stumbled upon the Carpenter’s Boat Shop, which offers boatbuilding apprenticeships in Bristol, nearly 400 miles from New York City. The nonprofit organization hosts eight to ten apprentices for four-month-long semesters every fall and spring at its campus on the shores of the Pemaquid River, just a mile away from the ocean. Thanks to donations, fundraising, and revenue from selling boats the apprentices have built or restored, the program doesn’t charge students a cent. “It felt too good to be true—a tuition-free program that considers applicants regardless of woodworking experience or background,” says Edelman. “Plus, you get to live in Maine.” She immediately applied and got an interview soon after. In August she moved to the campus to start the fall semester.
The apprenticeship is designed to teach basic boatbuilding and sailing skills, with progressively more difficult tasks introduced each week. Students learn the craft of boatbuilding, mostly working on 9- and 11-foot Monhegan skiffs. They live together on the campus in two farmhouses, eat all their meals together, and take turns cooking. Outside of hours working in the shop, apprentices and staff have weekly meetings and discussions about communal living, shared chores, and community service work. Apprentices are encouraged to use their time in the program to take a step back and reflect on their lives. “In life, we’re all either paying debts back or creating debt,” says Alicia Witham, the organization’s new executive director. “This is an opportunity to join a community that gives apprentices a moment to pause and find a new path forward.” She says apprentices have ranged from widowers to teenagers on a gap year before college.
Founded in 1979, the mission of the Carpenter’s Boat Shop remains the same today: “Building boats, nurturing lives, and helping others.” This ethos was one of the biggest draws for Witham, who spent nearly 20 years working at Outward Bound’s location on Hurricane Island off Rockland, and most recently served as director of adult programs and charters for SailMaine. She joined the Carpenter’s Boat Shop in spring 2021. Now that she’s been in her role for several months, Witham’s primary goals are to grow awareness of the nonprofit and “eddy back into normal times,” post-pandemic. Most applicants learn of the apprentice program through word-of-mouth or, like Edelman, by searching online. Witham has begun hosting year-round boat-building and woodworking classes for the general public and hopes to eventually open the campus to more people by offering it as a venue for weddings or company retreats. In the meantime, the apprenticeship program and the beneficial effects it has on participants and the surrounding community remain a top priority.
For Edelman, the experience led to a new career. After a decade of working in film production, she is now a restoration carpenter in Maine. “I feel that the program provided a unique opportunity to completely change my life and work in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise had,” Edelman says. “I would call it life-changing in a very literal sense, for me.”
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