Building a bateau is more than just classwork

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

ALPLAUS, N.Y. -- They made the mast, sunk the rivets and varnished the planks to a blond sheen.

The bateau was finally ready to go, although it was raining.

The wooden boat launched into the still waters of the Mohawk River is a replica of the 18th century craft popular with soldiers and civilians. It's a river boat with graceful curves and a sturdy thunk, like one a professional would make. But this one is different: It was handcrafted by teenage students in a special education program.

Students at the Maritime Academy started with a pile of white oak and white cedar last fall. By this month, the teenagers were sanding oars, varnishing seats and making other last-minute preparations. Ryan Barber, 16, said he hardly believed that they could have built the whole boat in a school year.

"Now you look at this, it's great," Barber said. "It's like, 'How did I build this?"'

The Maritime Academy is a small, four-year-old school on a narrow stretch of the Mohawk River near Schenectady. The area's Board of Cooperative Educational Services runs the school for sixth to ninth graders with emotional or social issues. Science and math teacher Jacques Du Moulin said the 20 students -- all boys this year -- receive a structured learning program with individualized attention.

And each year, they make a wooden boat.

Teaching hands-on skills

Technology teacher Gregory Pattison said building boats gives the youngsters hands-on skills and exposes them to math in a way that's easy to swallow. Beyond that, he says, it is a tangible accomplishment for the students -- some who have failed so much they use it as a defense.

"Instead of saying, 'I'm going to fail like you've never seen before,' in this project they don't want to fail," Pattison said. "They don't want the boat to sink."

In past years, students made skiffs and prams, which they put up for sale. This year's project -- making a replica of a larger historical boat -- was more ambitious.

The bateau -- French for boat -- was a sort of utility craft for inland waterways in the 18th century. It could be sailed, rowed, poled or portaged. Its flat bottom allowed for easy navigation of shallow waters or, in a pinch, towing it across the snow like a toboggan. They were used extensively in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars. Benedict Arnold relied on them for his ill-fated 1775 expedition for an assault on Quebec.

The Mabee Farm Historic Site, just up the river from the academy, agreed to pay the $2,000 for the building materials last summer. The boat is just like one Philip Schuyler, the Revolutionary War general, pulled up to the farm one night in 1792, said Stanley Lee, co-chairman of Mabee Farm.

But before the students could build, Pattison had to figure out how to design one like Schuyler's boat.

'Pretty good guesswork'

Pattison scoped out plans from other latter-day bateau builders. He looked at drawings made of a bateau sitting at the bottom of Lake George for the past 245 years. And he did some "pretty good guesswork" -- informed by a lifetime of working with wood and making boats.

The result is a boat 23 feet long and a mast half that high that Schuyler would recognize. There are some differences in this 2003 model. Rivets hammered into the planks are copper, not iron. And this boat was varnished, while a lot of old bateaux were painted. Students used some power tools, though planing, beveling and sanding were done by hand.

Pattison oversaw construction, but the youngsters did the measuring, cutting, sanding and hammering themselves as a sort of mother of all shop projects.

"You get something out of it," he said. "Everybody likes it."

The students and their families were there for the launching June 20. Pattison manned the tiller with colonial garb under his life vest while students rowed.

Mabee Farm will use the bateau for demonstrations on the Mohawk River, and Lee said a group of Colonial-era re-enactors has already asked to use it.

Students at the academy will start another boat next fall. Instead of going back to making skiffs and prams, Pattison hopes to find a buyer for another bateau -- maybe another historic site in the area.

"From Fort Ticonderoga on down, they ought to have a bateau around," he said

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