“COVID-19 sent us lemons, but we made lemonade.” That’s how Nikki Storey, the executive director of the Great Lakes Boat Building School (GLBBS) summarized the changes visited upon four prominent boatbuilding schools by the coronavirus crisis. In addition to GLBBS, The Landing School (TLS) in Arundel, Maine, the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS) in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding (NWSWB) in Port Hadlock, Washington, have started an informal alliance, with biweekly video calls to facilitate collaboration, the exchange of information, and the sharing of knowledge, resources, and best practices. “We never talked [before], but now the directors of the four schools are meeting online every two weeks. It’s very helpful to hash out challenges and to learn from each other so we can avoid making the mistakes of others,” Storey said.
Similar but Different
While many of the challenges are similar for all four institutions, the boatbuilding schools also remain independent, as they serve different regions and varying sizes of cohorts by offering a different mix of classes. Therefore, solutions have to be individualized to address each school’s particular requirements. Some common issues they are tackling:
• Reducing class sizes so students and staff can maintain social distance while working indoors. IYRS, for example, groups students in so-called pods that work on their assigned tasks.
• Modifying shop protocols to put a premium on fastidious use of personal protective equipment by students and faculty, including taking temperatures daily, completing safety checklists to verify safe off-campus conduct, wearing face masks and shields in indoor areas, and applying sanitation spray on hands and shared tools. At NWSWB, for instance, each student always has a personal spray bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer within reach, made by a former student of the school.
• Substituting traditional face-to-face instruction with online courses and lectures, using Learning Management Systems like Google Classroom and video tools like Panopto, Camtasia, or Snagit. Although virtual classrooms are valuable as complementary teaching tools, they can’t replace shop instruction at vocational schools. “I can see a hybrid [model] that is true to the hands-on principles of our schools, with the necessary alternative delivery being tailored to the student body and our specific demographics,” said Richard Downs-Honey, president of The Landing School. “Online training in boatbuilding is not a prerecorded video of a lecture sent to a class of 500. It has to be a connected experience, and through this collaboration we can develop a unique, effective mix for the future.”
• Adjusting reopenings to state and regional guidelines. They are different for each state, so the schools have to accommodate different delays due to the shutdown in the early days of the pandemic. GLBBS suffered only a relatively minor impact, because its three-week semester break coincided with much of the shutdown. Storey expected the school to restart on September 14 with a full cohort of 24 students, 12 each for comprehensive career boatbuilding and the marine service technology course. But it is a different story at NWSWB. To make up for lost time, the current boatbuilding class will stay on until the Christmas holidays instead of graduating in September, which forced their hand for 2021. “We’re looking at 30 students but postponed the start for the fall boatbuilding class by a year, because we could not guarantee the quality instruction we are committed to,” explained NWSWB chief instructor Sean Koomen. “We are hoping to bring in 16 students for the marine systems class in April of 2021, if the new 4,500-sq-ft [418.06m²] shop building is complete by then.” At the time of this writing, work was on pace, with the concrete foundation finished. Moving marine system students from the current mezzanine quarters above the Hammond shop to the new facility will accommodate larger class sizes and create more space for boatbuilding students.
• Fundraising and accessing state funding for ongoing campus construction projects (see above) or federal help, i.e., the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), to make up for reduced income from tuition and donations, the two main sources for 501(c)(3) nonprofits. “Our Summer Celebration Gala was canceled this year,” said IYRS president Jay Coogan. “We are running the IYRS In Motion Campaign to raise funds.… We have been soliciting support from past gala attendees.” Most patrons who bought tickets before the outbreak agreed to turn them into cash donations, Coogan added. While mass gatherings are prohibited, the schools are also turning to online auctions to reach their donor base.
• Balancing the recruitment of new students and the placement of alumni. A welcome side effect of the coronavirus crisis is robust demand for new boats and the frequent use of existing boats as a means to enjoy leisure time at a social distance. “I talked to the folks at RIMTA [Rhode Island Marine Trade Association], and boatbuilders everywhere are saying: ‘We’re busy,’” Coogan reported. “We have always had great placement rates for students in the marine and other industries. I expect this will continue unless we see a significant downturn in the economy.”
The bigger challenge is signing up new students and presenting boatbuilding schools as a viable and promising alternative to a college education. “[In] spring of 2020, we had plans to visit and speak to high school students and counselors,” Storey said. “[But] in lieu of being able to meet students in person, we have incorporated a monthly Virtual Visit Day, which has been a success.” NWSWB has made the same move, offering one-hour virtual tours for prospective new students, “an interactive program overview and Q&A with instructors, and overview of the admissions process.”
Exchanging information, sharing resources, and collaborating have been standard practices among most institutions of higher learning for a long time, so this development has been in the cards for boatbuilding schools and now, finally, has become a reality, with positive impacts already being felt. “I think the COVID-19 disruption will shift not only our 2020 year but also the training and teaching models for years to come,” stated Downs-Honey. “We are being presented with wonderful opportunities for a much broader connection between the four schools, our alumni, and those in the industry. We don’t know exactly what will develop, but working together we will get there so much faster, and with a broader perspective than if we tackle this alone. If one or all of us improves how we cope with the changes happening worldwide, and we establish a plan for the future, it betters the experience for our students, and in turn we can prepare stronger candidates for the industry.”
Great Lakes Boat Building School, 485 South Meridian Rd., Cedarville, MI 49719 USA, tel. 906–484–1081.
International Yacht Restoration School, 449 Thames St., Newport, RI 02840 USA, tel. 401–848–5777.
The Landing School, 286 River Rd., Arundel, ME, 04046 USA, tel. 207– 985–7976.
Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, 42 N. Water St., Port Hadlock, WA 98339 USA, tel. 360–385–4948.