MAHS students to learn boat-building skills

Students from Marquette Alternative High School at Vandenboom last year take to Lake Superior in the community pilot gig. This year’s Career and College Readiness students will learn boat-building skills, such as construction of cedar strip wood canoes and their own pilot gig. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — Last September, Marquette Alternative High School students saw Marquette in a way they rarely do: from Lake Superior.

They were treated to a ride in the community Cornish pilot gig, created in 2015 by a group of local residents who finished the 32-foot-long red-and-orange boat after working on it for about five years. Since then, the public has had opportunities to take it out on the lake.

If MAHS students continue to work on a new part of its curriculum, there should be even more opportunities for students to get that unique view of the city and Lake Superior.

MAHS this year is integrating boat-building skills into its Career and College Readiness course taught by Brian Prill. In that course they will learn how to construct cedar strip wood canoes — and a 32-foot pilot gig ideal for rowing on Lake Superior.

It’s a marketable skill.

The Career and College Readiness course, Prill said, involves students working in the trades.

“We’re really focused on learning to measure accurately, follow directions, work as a team to build something,” Prill said.

Prill wants to create a sustainable boat-building project in which students build a community pilot gig. They also would build cedar strip canoes they can sell to fund the program once it’s up and running.

The high school, however, will keep some of the boats.

Prill noted both types of boats will take a considerable amount of skill and time to build, but the projects will allow students to see through their own “self-doubt” as they realize their ability

The MAHS pilot gig will be used in the same manner as the community gig.

“Once we have our boat built, we’ll be able to take both of the boats out to the harbor and have 16 kids on the water at the same time, rowing, and have some team-building, community-building programs to really help our alternative students become part of the program,” Prill said.

The students are working with one of the original pilot gig’s builders, Mike Potts.

Potts said in a news release: “I am excited to see a youth boat-building program developing here in Marquette. The skills learned and confidence gained are the most valuable things we can provide to the next generation.”

He said the pilot gig on which he worked, named “Lark,” was filled with rowers every week and provided access to Lake Superior for hundreds of people of all abilities.

“Another boat provides even more access and adventure for our community,” Potts said.

The students are in the fundraising stage of the project now, with a pilot gig kit costing $3,500, Prill said. A cedar strip canoe costs $500.

“Hopefully we’ll have it raised by spring here, and then we’ll start building and have it be an ongoing project for the next two years,” Prill said. “I don’t foresee us finishing the first gig or the canoe for a year or two, but then once we get one out, we’ll have them using them, and then building more canoes to kind of keep the project going.”

The Cornish pilot gig itself is an interesting craft.

When sailing ships would come in to the rocky coast of Cornwall, England, in the 19th century, a local pilot would meet the ships, Potts said in a 2015 Mining Journal interview. The first boat that could put a pilot onto an incoming boat would get the work and the money.

“It was a survival thing, so these boats became super fast and super seaworthy, because it’s an open ocean, and then they used them for lifeboats and wreckers and rescue, because there was this economic thing going on, which was putting pilots on boats,” Potts said.

The pilot gigs, which would last only 10 years, then began to be built faster, stronger and better, but eventually they were used just for racing, he said. With the wooden boat resurgence in the 1970s, more gigs were built.

Whatever its past uses, the pilot gig is relevant to modern use.

“It’s a good boat for schools as well because it’s very, very sturdy, so you can get eight people on it and you don’t have to worry about it tipping over,” Prill said.

Of course, the project goes beyond getting a boat on the water.

As with building anything, once someone looks at the plans and figures out it out, it’s really then just putting pieces together and following directions, he said.

“Those are the kind of skills we’re looking to build with the students as well,” Prill said. “If they’re going to go to the trades, it’s important to be able to follow directions and work as a team and be a cohesive unit to get something done.”

A total of $1,200 already has been procured in grants and private donations for the boat-building program.

To make a contribution, contact MAHS at 906-225-4321 or send a check payable to MAHS Boat-Building Project to the school at 1175 Erie St., Marquette, MI 49855.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal. net.