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Vessel project becomes a tool for shaping minds

A Chesapeake Bay sailing skipjack and a wooden canoe are far apart on the spectrum of watercraft. One is designed for carrying a hard-working crew to harvest oysters, the other for one or two people to paddle quiet waters.

But consider the far wider gap between these vessels, hand-made toolboxes and the streets of urban Baltimore, where young people are lured by drugs and guns.

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That is the span being celebrated next week with the re-launch of the Sigsbee, a 1901-vintage vessel that is the latest project of the Living Classrooms Foundation.

Toolbox, canoe and skipjack all represent the work of students in the foundation's Fresh Start program. So-called "at-risk" youngsters, many in residential juvenile justice institutions such as the Charles Hickey School, begin a nine-month rehabilitation program by building their own toolboxes.

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They earn tools by their performance, gain high school diplomas or GED certificates, and progress to working on small craft and large restoration projects such as the Sigsbee.

Three weeks ago, six Fresh Start students completed construction and delivered two elegant, highly varnished canoes to private buyers.

On Monday, the Sigsbee returns to the water -- rebuilt from the keel up by a professional crew assisted by Fresh Start students. The launch is scheduled at 1 p.m. at the Living Classrooms Maritime Institute at the foot of Caroline Street, on the harbor in Fells Point.

"The boats and even the carpentry are just the means to get through to them [the students] and show that they have ability and potential to do big things," says Jamie Berman, a shipwright instructor and co-director of the Sigsbee restoration.

Remember the Sigsbee?

The vintage oyster craft gained much media attention in October 1990, when it sank north of the Bay Bridge while competing in the annual skipjack races during Chesapeake Appreciation Days.

For almost two weeks, the vessel lay on the beach at Sandy Point before arrangements were made to transport it by barge to Baltimore, as a project of what was then called the Lady Maryland Foundation.

"When we got into it, there wasn't much we could save," says John Kellett, co-leader of the repair crew that began restoration of the Sigsbee last fall.

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Over the years of hard oystering, the boat's hull had "hogged" -- meaning its keel had bowed downward at either end. Worse, explains the shipwright, its side hull planking, or freeboard, had sagged to the point the "chines" -- where the sides turn into the bottom -- actually were lower than the keel.

"Age takes its toll on wood boats," says Mr. Kellett.

Mr. Berman says all that remains of the original Sigsbee are the mast step and partner -- where the mast meets the deck -- and much of the boat's hardware and sails.

By June, the foundation expects the Sigsbee will join the Living Classrooms environmental education fleet, which includes the "pungey" schooner Lady Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay "buyboat" Mildred Belle.

The boats, berthed at the red lighthouse on Pier Five, take school groups on bay excursions.

The new Sigsbee includes a diesel inboard engine, donated by the Curtis Engines firm. Restoration work was funded through the foundation's Save Our Skipjacks project, the Maryland Historical Trust and Preservation Maryland.

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The first canoes

Among the Fresh Start students who worked on the Sigsbee were six who this spring also produced the first canoes to emerge from the program: Lamont Robertson, Maurice Horton, Johnson Oleyede, Chris Smith, Joe Cooper and Shawn Weaver.

"Can we buy our boat back?" asked Mr. Horton, only half-jokingly, last month after the delivery. He, Mr. Robertson and Mr. Oleyede presented the 18-foot "Redbird" canoe to buyer Skip Brown, chief executive officer of The Belt's Corporation in Fells Point.

The three had just had their first opportunity to try the low-slung canoe in a windy paddle trip from the foot of Caroline Street to Brown's Wharf, where Mr. Brown waited.

"I couldn't be happier," said Mr. Brown, as he shook hands with each of the youthful builders. They loaded the canoe onto a truck that would take it to Mr. Brown's farm in Baltimore County, where he plans to use it for bass fishing on a pond.

Mr. Brown, in fact, provided the spark for the canoe project. A board member of the Harbor Endowment, he inquired last fall if the Fresh Start program had ever built a canoe. "We said no, but thought, why not?" said instructor Clayton Christiansen.

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Then Ed Snodgrass, director of education programs for the foundation, also ordered a canoe -- a 16-foot Mic-Mac model -- and Mr. Christiansen, fellow instructor Doug Grinath and their six students researched the designs and laid down lines for the paddle craft.

Practical skills

The canoes actually represent the first products of Woodwork Industries and East Coast Industries, companies formed in line with the foundation's goal of teaching practical business skills to students.

"The boat is really incidental. If I can instill in them what it takes to get a job and keep it, we've been successful," says Mr. Christiansen, adding the canoe builders "are the first group to do a project and actually make money on it."

The canoes were sold for approximately $1,000 each, a bargain among handcrafted wood canoes.

An earlier corporation founded by three Fresh Start graduates, Tico Enterprises, manufactures small wood products, such as a "soap saver" sold in the Body Shop chain. Charles Spann, George Hall and U'Baid Harris run the company in a corner of the foundation's boat shop.

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"We're trying to start habits of mind here. That's what makes you successful in the business world," says Amy Rosenthal, assistant director of education.

"If they're society's discards, and we put the model in front of them, then all of those perceived barriers start to fall," says Mr. Snodgrass. "What we are trying to do is create a program where people are constantly assessing themselves."

SAVING THE SIGSBEE

What: Re-launching of the skipjack Sigsbee

When: Monday, 1 p.m.

Where: Living Classrooms Foundation Maritime Institute, Caroline and Lancaster streets, Fells Point

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Information: 685-0295


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