Senate Hills, of Hillsboro, Oregon, has been making things for as long as he can remember. His current project is a framed wooden shed with cedar-shake siding for his six trucks. Before this, he built two other sheds, one of which has a ramp and accommodates the wagon he uses for light hauling. For loading logs, he built a boom derrick operated by a steam donkey.
Senate is 11 years old. His trucks and heavy equipment are all toys, most of which he has made. He started building things in cardboard, but when he was six or seven, he turned his hand to working more substantial materials. He and his dad, Jeff, were fixing a table when Senate spied a piece of plywood about 18″ long by 7″ wide, pointed at one end. He thought, “I could build a boat out of this. I screwed some boards to the sides, added a keel, which increased the draft from about 3⁄4″ to about 4″, attached a rudder, which I’d made out of a small hinge and a wooden board, and screwed a tiller to the top. I kept the boat from leaking by driving hemp twine into the cracks using a flat-head screwdriver and a hammer.”
The family took the new boat to the beach on the Oregon coast where Senate christened her DRIFTWOOD before launching her. As she bobbed in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean, Senate imagined her as an inboard fishing boat.
That summer Senate built all manner of experimental boats. Almost every week the family went to nearby Tualatin River and almost every week there was a new boat to christen and launch. They were, he says, “weird little things, just experiments really, but they almost all worked.”
There is no boating in Senate’s background, but when the pandemic hit and the Hills family went into lockdown, Senate’s mom, Melissa, decided to subscribe to a couple of magazines they could all enjoy. One was National Geographic, the other was WoodenBoat. Senate read the latter from cover to cover and was hooked. He continued to create the cardboard and plywood vessels of his imagination but also started building small, simple, model boats from kits. His favorite model boat, he says, is PADDY, a radio-controlled Beaver Tug that he built with Jeff from plans and templates they found on the internet.
“We built her of balsa,” says Senate, “and installed a radio-controlled motor. We sheathed her in cotton fabric soaked in epoxy to make her stronger and watertight. And we painted her to look like a real working tugboat; she even has miniature tires for fenders.”
As the pandemic restrictions slowly eased, Melissa began looking for family outings. First came a tour on ARROW Nº2, a retired and restored Columbia River pilot launch based in Astoria (which Senate got to drive during the family’s visit) and then, in the summer of 2022, Senate, Melissa, and Jeff joined seven other families on the banks of the Willamette River for the annual Family Boat Build put on by the RiversWest Small Craft Center.
Over this two-day weekend workshop in Portland, Oregon, the goal was for each family to build a Salt Bay Skiff—complete but unfinished. The Hills family worked as a team, but they agreed that it was Senate’s project. “RiversWest had set up stations with all the parts and the instructions, like a kit,” says Senate. “RiversWest members helped by demonstrating and explaining how to do things if we weren’t sure, but we did all the work ourselves. I was the senior shipwright, my dad was the tool specialist, and my mom made sure we followed all the instructions.”
The Salt Bay Skiff, designed by Chris Franklin, is a simple 12′ stitch-and-glue skiff that can be built from two sheets of plywood. It is an ideal project for beginning boatbuilders. It has a deep skeg, outside chine logs, and can carry a load of up to 300 lbs. While it can be built and rigged for sail, the Hills family chose to build their boat for rowing. Senate had no previous experience with small boats and wanted to take things one step at a time.
The weekend was hot but despite numerous breaks to cool down and rehydrate, Senate and his parents stayed on schedule. Apart from the heat, Senate says, the hardest part was “attaching the side panels to the stem. At that point there’s nothing holding the plywood panels in place, and they flopped around a lot. But it got easier as we attached the stem, then the forward frame, the midships frame, and the transom. After we attached the bottom sheet and the chine logs, it felt really stable. Then we turned it over and it already looked like a boat!”
By the end of the weekend, they had fitted all the pine thwarts, quarter knees, and breasthook, and the skiff, while not yet painted, could be taken out for a test row on the Willamette River. “It was exciting,” says Senate, “There was the ‘We built that!’ moment. All three of us went out. For the sake of balance, my dad rowed, sitting on the middle thwart. I’m glad we did it, but we quickly knew that having all three of us on board was too much. There was very little freeboard and in the wrong conditions the boat would be easy to swamp.”
After the weekend, Senate went straight to work finishing the skiff at home. “We had to make sure all the screwheads were countersunk, and then we filled and sanded and painted.” Indeed, Melissa and Senate would spend weeks painting. “We sealed everything with primer,” says Melissa, “and then painted many coats of bright red and gloss white. We added a nonskid to the bottom inside. We taped off where we didn’t want texture, painted a coat of white, sprinkled sand over the wet paint and then covered it with a final coat on top of the sand.” Jeff and Senate shoed the skeg with a brass half-oval strip because, Melissa says, “Senate was very concerned after the first few times using the boat that the skeg was getting chewed up.”
Senate named his skiff TIME–TRAVELER because “when kids go out in boats,” he says, “we lose track of time.” In the year since the Family Boat Build, Senate has taken TIME–TRAVELER out “so many times I’ve lost count. She’s really nice to row and I’ve noticed that even when going into waves she still performs well. If you really lean into the oars, she’ll go fast. Sometimes I give my parents rides, but I’d say the optimum is just me or me and one other person. With a passenger you just have to get the weight distribution right, but otherwise, the only downside is less freeboard.”
Senate and TIME–TRAVELER returned to Family Boat Build in 2023, not to build another boat, but to help. Senate had made display cards identifying all the boat parts. He answered many questions—especially at the beginning of the weekend—and helped to fetch tools and parts, held things in place when an extra pair of hands was needed, and offered advice and encouragement to the new builders. He also brought some of his favorite books about boats to share.
While he’s busy getting on the water as much as possible in TIME–TRAVELER, Senate continues to draw, build, and dream. He hopes, in a few years, to build a sailboat, something he can construct himself and learn to sail in. “I don’t know how to sail,” Senate says. “I’ve never even been on a sailboat. So that would be an ambition.” In the end though, he says, he just wants to go on learning new things. “I think that’s what life is about…learning…you’re never really finished.”
Jenny Bennett is managing editor of Small Boats.
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