Maryland journal

The Baltimore Sun

It looks like hard work and not much of a vacation, given that these T-shirted folks are toiling in a garage-like shop, rather than strolling the waterfront tourist district during their stay in Annapolis.

Their souvenirs from Maryland's capital are the wooden kayaks they are building. In a light industrial and business section of the city, a small class of grown-ups is gluing and 'glassing, stirring and sanding.

For them, the lure to the city that bills itself as the nation's sailing capital is not the water. It's the romance of building one's own watercraft in this 5 1/2 -day class.

Participants came from as far as Montreal to construct a boat at the home of Chesapeake Light Craft, the self-described largest maker of small, lightweight wood boat kits in the world.

The classes the company runs represent a fraction of the 2,000 kits for skiffs, kayaks, canoes and such that the company sells in a year.

They respond to a niche demand from people who want the do-it-yourself experience but lack the do-it-yourself know-how. (For the true DIY-er, the company sells plans.)

"If you don't know woodworking, like I don't, and you don't want to have it sink, like I don't, you take a week off and you have a boat," said Doug Berne, a 45-year-old child psychiatrist from Philadelphia, as he tightened copper wires that affixed the sides to the bottom.

The kayak kit and class was a birthday gift from his wife.

"I told my wife it's so beautiful she'll have to keep it in the living room," he said. "It's too beautiful for the garage."

Admiring his handiwork, he admitted to scant woodworking skills: He once made a paddle in a class.

This was far more involved. Participants arrived with clamps by the carton, hand tools from home and motivation to work on their feet for up to 10 hours a day. Big tools, such as sanders with vacuums to reduce dust, are provided.

Over 11 years of classes, CLC has honed the course to keep everyone on track to take home a finished boat at the end of the week no matter their skill levels. Steps are timed for glues to dry overnight.

Four of the 11 small boat-making classes CLC is running this year are at its 10,000-square-foot showroom-factory-office-workshop-plant-warehouse; the others are held farther up the East Coast. The company has taken its shorter canoe class on the road for marathon family boat-building sessions and for private groups that have included faculty and staff at Harvard Business School.

"This is my first major project like this. It's the first boat I've ever built. Isn't that amazing?" said Peter Rafle, 66, of Hopewell, N.J., who is about to retire from his position as a senior vice president of an import company. "I'm up for challenges."

One reason to take the class is to get the boat built.

A dedicated builder would need about two months of evenings and weekends to build this 17-foot kayak. The materials required, intensity of the work and tedium of the tasks - dozens of little copper wires have to be tied, for example - don't lend themselves to the occasional hour of effort. Kit pieces vanish after years of sporadic work, if the box gets opened at all.

"My kit languished in the garage - I've had the kit for five years," said Richard Garrity, 68, a retired airline pilot from Annapolis, while lamenting that his epoxy mix was too gloppy. "So for my birthday, which is coming up in June, my wife and sons, they put up the tuition."

In addition to the nearly $900 for the kit, students paid $700 to use the specialized tools and marine materials, and have John C. Harris, the owner of CLC, teach and hover.

"We sell the experience of building their own boat," said Harris, 34. "It's moving art."

Participants build the 50-plus-piece kayaks, sand them and apply fiberglass. But finishing - varnishing is the most popular finish to display the grain of the African okoume wood - is the take-home part of the class. It can take as much as another 35 hours.

Martin Dumont, 36, drove 11 hours from his home outside Montreal to take this class. He was the most experienced of the six students - five men and one woman - having made furniture. He snapped digital photos throughout his educational week away from his security guard job.

"I would like to start one from scratch," he said.

On the second afternoon, plastic-gloved participants were learning the art of resin-mixing: how to blend the formula, how much wood flour and silica to stir into the epoxy to get the goo to the creamy peanut butter consistency that makes the craft watertight. Harris demonstrated, and then showed them how to smush the concoction into the plywood seams, a job known as filleting.

"Try to keep it off the floor and off you," Harris instructed, as he went person to person. "Neatness counts."

As does time. More than 50 feet of seams needed filleting, which took several hours. The compound had to be mixed in pint-sized batches so it didn't set before use.

Leaving some of the task for the next morning was not an option; the class was choreographed so the gunk dried overnight in preparation for other work.

The company was started in an Arlington, Va., basement in 1991. Harris, who built his own boat at the age of 14, joined a few years later, little by little buying it out. Boat-building, he warned the participants, is addictive - and offers the possibility of business for him.

Gary Ellis, 63, a newly retired financial planner from Sarasota, Fla., was learning the skills and gaining the confidence for Kayak No. 2.

"When I get home, I'll make my wife's boat," he said.

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