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Young shipwrights learn aboard floating lab


The table saws and routers were silent; the sawdust had long since settled.

But outside a work shed at Mayo's Casa Rio Marina, the 18-foot-long raft -- a prototypical floating laboratory -- continues to take shape in the minds of a group of young shipwrights.

Tom Rodgers of the Draketail Maritime Project drills his eight apprentices, ranging in age from 10 to 16, on Archimedes, a Greek mathematician whose theorems on the displacement of water are central to boat construction.

These are just the first rudimentary steps, he says. Over the coming weeks, he will guide his wards through the entire process of designing and building the first "modular estuary research platform," known as MERP, an unsinkable, self-propelled classroom.

"The main idea is not the boat," says Rodgers, a Galesville resident who volunteered for the 1 1/2 -year-old Draketail Maritime Project last spring. "It's the process -- meaning the doing is more important than the results.

"The whole purpose is to keep the kids interested in math, science and ecology before they get completely warped out at age 16."

The Draketail raft is one of the record 88 environmental and education projects financed statewide this spring by the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The 7-year-old trust distributes money collected through the state income tax check-off and the sale of Chesapeake Bay license plates.

The trust has awarded $3.5 million to 460 projects in 24 counties and Baltimore City since 1985, project coordinator Rick Leader said. In May, the group distributed $365,000, including $2,600 for the Draketail platform.

Also receiving money were the Sawmill Creek Watershed Association, for a water-quality monitoring program; county schools, for Bay Science Fair awards; the Magothy River Land Trust, for conservation of open spaces; Annapolis Middle School, for science equipment; Central Middle School, to construct bird houses and bat boxes along Glebe Branch; Chelsea Beach Residents Association, to control erosion; Arundel Junior High School, to develop an educational trail along Towsers Branch, and the Galesville Heritage Society, to cultivate oyster beds.

Leader says the trust targets projects that encourage public, hands-on participation in the environment. The MERP is a good example, he says. Students will use it to observe the bay and its tributaries up close rather than from textbooks.

"That one is even more neat because the kids have ownership, a stake in what they are doing," Leader says. "They are actually building the craft they are going to go out in."

Work on the MERP began in earnest last week. By Friday afternoon, the first outline of what will eventually be a shallow, aluminum hull had taken shape. Their immediate task is to construct patterns the students can use at their schools to reproduce their own MERPs.

"We'd like these kids here to get other kids involved," Rodgers says. "Hopefully, they can take these patterns and, presto, in two days, they have a boat they can go out and play with."

The participants come from as far away as Baltimore, though most come from Mayo and Galesville. Most already have spent 1 1/2 years building The John Gregory, a nearly extinct style of Chesapeake Bay workboat called a Draketail. The boat, christened last month, was the first Draketail built on the bay in 50 years.

Rodgers stresses the MERP is very different from the fishing boat.

"Our purpose is to create a floating platform to do science class studies," Rodgers says. "No matter what you do, you have to have some physical site to do it from, you need some sort of laboratory. We hope this is it."

The raft is being designed so it can be rowed, poled, powered or sailed. It should hold up to 10 students and science equipment, and could be used in planting aquatic grasses or cultivating oyster beds.

Then again, Jermaine Tai, 11, a sixth-grader at Central Middle School, said he was excited about the raft simply because "I like going out on the water. I usually travel on land or by airplane. I don't usually get to ride boats."

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