There's never a shortage of unusual craft being built or repaired by students at Alexandria Seaport Foundation's boatbuilding school. But even amid the remarkable collection of old-fashioned wooden vessels there, the latest creation stands out. It's a strip-planked, double-ended, canoe-shaped, primitive thing that looks better suited to a tropical lagoon.
"It's an Acehnese crabber," says Joe Youcha, the Columbia University graduate who founded the school in Washington's historic port city over a decade ago.
Joe Youcha, second from right, helps Alexandria Seaport Foundation boatbuilding students with a replica of an Indonesian skiff.
(Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
That's Acehnese as in Banda Aceh, the city at the northern tip of Sumatra that was devastated by tsunamis the day after Christmas. Millions of people lost homes in the flooding when the 20-foot waves washed ashore, hundreds of thousands lost their lives.
There wasn't much Youcha could do about that, being neither doctor nor house-builder. His mind raced to what he knows and he wondered, what about the boats?
It turns out tens of thousands of boats were lost as well, smashed against palms or rolled and pulverized by the raging waves. Most were not pleasure craft but small workboats from which Indonesians, Indians, Sri Lankans and Thais catch fish and shellfish. Fishing, Youcha discovered, is the No. 1 or No. 2 occupation in much of the region, alongside tourism. Both had been dealt a sledgehammer blow.
"My first thought was to find out what kind of boats they used and make up plywood kits we could send over with a portable boatbuilding shop so they could make replacements," he said. He forwarded the idea to the United Nations agency overseeing relief but was told the affected nations already had lumber and talent to build new boats and needed to put survivors to work. What they really needed was money.
Youcha then contacted Steve Phillips of the Maryland-based global seafood company Phillips Seafood, which buys crabmeat for its famous crabcakes and other seafood from the Far East. Phillips was organizing fundraising efforts to put his suppliers back on their feet through Operation Build-a-Boat. Could Youcha help?
Phillips, just back from a two-week tour of the devastation, said he could use a prop for the fundraising booth he'd be taking around to conventions and seafood shows this spring. Could Youcha's team build such a thing? Perhaps a replica of an Indonesian fishing boat? And could they get it ready, like, right now?
Phillips had photos from his trip. Youcha enlarged one, calculated the lines of an 18-foot Acehnese crabber the best he could, built a one-eighth-scale model, took measurements from it and set his team to work lofting, cutting, nailing, gluing, fairing and painting.
"It's not a real boat so we cut some corners," he said. The hull was built from light spruce strips for easier transport and faired with inexpensive Bondo instead of epoxy and microballoons. "You wouldn't want to take this out on the river," said Youcha with a chuckle. "The whole things weighs under 100 pounds."
By the middle of last week the hull was done, the exterior was faired and primed for paint and the crew of a dozen students was focused on installing ribs and fairing the interior. They hadn't a moment to waste. The boat was due at the District's Grand Hyatt Hotel today for its maiden appearance at a Young Presidents Organization global leadership conference that starts Monday.
"We've got 2,000 presidents of corporations from around the world coming in," said Aden King, director of business development for Phillips, "and we're hoping one of them will adopt a whole fleet."
Phillips is seeking donations of $500 to replace a lost Acehnese crabber; $1,500 to replace an Indian gaff-rigged fishing boat that supports up to three fishermen; $3,000 for an Indonesian day boat that carries up to four; or $25,000 to adopt an entire fleet of fully rigged day boats. Already, more than $45,000 has been raised.
While the Youcha team's contribution is modest, it offers an intriguing chance for struggling young Americans to do a good turn for struggling folks half a world away. The boatbuilding school's students are at-risk youths plucked from local courts or school systems after dropping out or being expelled from school.
The program gives them another chance. If they survive six months of intensive training, they graduate with a high school general equivalency diploma and a guaranteed three-year apprenticeship with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which supports the program. They start work at around $35,000 a year, with a chance to make much more if they stick it out.
It's six months of tough love. "If they miss one day of class or are late twice, they're out," said Youcha, who oversees the daily regimen.
Normally, students build small wooden boats that the school later sells or they work on repairs to boats customers bring in. The warehouse where they work in the Robinson Terminal at the foot of Duke Street is full of unique boats in various stages of construction or repair -- here a skipjack, there a sailing dinghy, across the room a rowboat, over here a gleaming speedboat.
The shriek of power saws echoes off the high ceilings, the smell of glue and varnish lingers in the cool, winter air. In the midst of it all sits a curious little craft, hand-built by hardened urban teenagers who wear their pants down around their knees and talk like gangsters. They're tough guys swallowing their pride to get back on their feet, in the process doing their bit to put some struggling victims of bad luck on the far side of the world back on theirs.
For information on Operation Build-a-Boat, check www.phillipsfoods.com or call 443-263-1200.