Catlin Gabel is an independent day school with a 67-acre campus on the wooded outskirts of Portland, Oregon. The school promises its students “Experiential Learning” and Ric Fry, the Lower School Woodshop teacher, delivers on that promise with hands-on boatbuilding for kids as young as 7 years old.
Ric himself got an early start on woodworking. When he was 10, his family moved to a small farm near Toronto and he had to build sheds for the cows he was charged with raising. In his teens he made strip-built canoes for paddling the lakes in the region. When he began his teaching career in New York City it was only natural that he would take grade-schoolers boating on the Hudson River to teach them about marine biology.
While teaching at Catlin Gabel, he has introduced boatbuilding to students from second to fifth grade in woodshop classes, after-school programs, and off-campus workshops, held in conjunction with RiversWest Small Craft Center. In past projects, he has guided young students through building Salt Bay Skiffs, Amphora Skiffs, and a skin-on-frame canoe.
With his most recent projects at the school, Ric added a new dimension to experiential learning: building boats with materials harvested from the land. To get off to a running start, he called on Steve Carrigg, who builds skin-on-frame boats in Tigard, a Portland suburb. Steve’s specialty is working with the slender new branches of hazelnut trees to make coracles and curraghs. The Willamette River valley south Portland has an abundance of the trees in nut-producing orchards as well as bushes growing in open spaces.
The trees need frequent pruning, a job that’s best done in winter when the trees are dormant, so in February of 2018, Ric arranged with one of the orchardists for a class field trip to cut and collect the straight green withies that sprout from the trees.
Ric and his volunteer students spent a couple of hours collecting about 120 withies, all about 10′ long. They would need to season for a few weeks, because the wood will shrink as it dries and create a loose boat if used too soon. After the withies dry, they will remain limber for months.
The boatbuilding with the hazel pieces began with a coracle project for second-graders. The class took over a bit of the campus lawn for their building site and “planted” about three dozen withies in the ground. More withies, woven in and out of the uprights, formed the coracle’s gunwale. Then the uprights are bent over in pairs, forming a latticework that gets lashed together. The canvas covering was waterproofed with Rust-Oleum paint.
In 2019, Ric took on a more ambitious project, a curragh, with his fourth and fifth graders. The frame of their version of the traditional Irish rowing boat, built without plans, would use the withies for the frames and stringers with Oregon white oak for the double gunwales, stem, and keel.
The forward ends of the gunwale longitudinals needed to be coaxed into curves; the green oak, steamed in a PVC pipe, took their shapes around a plywood form. The stanchions between the parallel gunwale pieces had rounded tenons, shaped with scroll saws and rasps, to fit the holes the kids drilled in the gunwales with a brace and auger bit.
The withy frames, with their bark on and still quite flexible, were bent under the keel and fit in holes in the lower gunwale pieces. The pairs were shaped by eye, lashed together, and trimmed.
The students stretched 12-oz ballistic nylon over the completed framework and stapled it to the upper gunwales. Summer vacation left completing the curragh up to Ric and RiversWest member John Ost. They stitched the fabric seams at the stem and stern and waterproofed the skin with a two-part polyurethane with a bit of pigment.
The curragh and coracle will join Catlin Gabel’s growing fleet of small boats, as much a part of the Experiential Learning program on the water as the boats yet to be built in the school’s woodshop.
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