Bert van Baar runs De Bootbouwschool (The Boatbuilding School) in an old navy yard in Den Helden, a canal-laced city on the coast of the Netherlands. The boats he and his students have built over the 20 years since the school’s founding are mostly traditional, open, lapstrake boats for oar and sail, though not, as you might expect, inspired by Dutch designs. Bert has a fondness for what he calls “the American Style,” and among his favorites is the Catherine design, the boat detailed in Richard Kolin’s book, Building Catherine: a 14-foot pulling boat in the Whitehall tradition. Bert describes the Catherine as “sleek, tender, and gracious, and builds like a miracle.”
The first Catherine to come out of the school’s shop was built in 2007, and was the 77th student-built boat. During the nine-day class the students finished everything but the floorboards, a project that was left to the student who won the raffle to take the boat home. The sixth Catherine, christened ANNA by the retired doctor who won his class’s raffle, was planked in oak, making her heavy but tough. Bert has used mahogany too and has looked, without success, for white pine that’s suitable for planking, but most often uses western red cedar.
Students often wonder why such a soft wood is used to plank the boat, and Bert explains “that it works so easily, and once the boat is finished and you know how much effort went into her building, you sail her very carefully!” Riveting the laps takes a light touch to avoid burying the heads too deeply into the cedar, but the students are eager to learn and soon grew accustomed to the demands of the work.
Bert works closely with the students for the first few days of the class, then gradually steps back, letting them take the lead. For this most recent Catherine, the students, ranging in age from 42 to 63 and by trade from a carpenter to a flight controller, were eager to finish the boat. They worked hard and had completed everything but the last two floorboards.
Bert offered them a chance to take the boat out for a row on the canal just outside the shop, but the group had given all they had to the construction, and settled for coffee and cake. They agreed to have a reunion in Friesland when Gerrit, the carpenter and winner of the raffle, had the boat ready to be christened.