By Neil Moran

When Chris Fields attended a free boat building workshop last summer in Cedarville on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he was just one of the curious. He didn’t realize it would lead to a major career move. Fields was attending a promotional event for the opening of the Great Lakes Boat Building School. The next thing he knew he was getting a scholarship to pay for a year’s worth of tuition to learn the art and craft of boat building.
“This school has really changed my life around, said Fields,” an energetic 21-year-old from Wolverine, Mich. “I’m very excited.”
The boat building school is located less than 100-feet from the lapping waves of Lake Huron. It faces a string of islands known as Les Cheneaux and is the only such school in the Midwest, according to Dave Lesh, director of the new school. In fact, it is only one of three wooden boat building schools in the country.
“This is really the only school originally designed and built as a boat building school,” said Lesh, referring to the fact that the other two schools, on the East and West coasts respectively, were started out in a garage.
The two-story building boasts 12,000 square feet for classrooms, offices, a lunchroom and spacious work areas. An adjacent converted home is used for the main office and occasional sleeping quarters. The idea for the school came from the ponderings of two local boat enthusiasts, Paul Wilson and Bob Smith. The retirees were interested in attracting some “new blood,” to help perk up a somewhat declining boat and restoration industry in the local area.
So far, it looks like the school, which thus far has been entirely funded by private donations, is a hit with the locals.
“The response from the community has been terrific, said Bob Smith, chairman of the board for the school.
Nearby Hessel hosts the Antique Wooden Board Show every year, and the area is steeped in a rich tradition of boats of all kinds for island-hopping and fishing, making the boat building school a natural fit.
“Most donors have pretty deep roots to the area,” explained school director Lesh, who was originally appointed to the board of the school and then hired as its first director. “There are some pretty generous people here.”
In some ways the boat building school is like a one-room schoolhouse. It currently consists of one small class of seven students. The students attend each class together and vary in age from 21 to over 50. They hail mostly from the Midwest with students coming from as far away as Detroit and Wisconsin. By the looks of things, the students have formed bonds with each other as strong as the adhesives on these wooden boats.
“They’re a great group of guys who have gotten to be friends,” Lesh said.
Teacher Pat Mahon, a veteran boat builder of 32 years, taught at the renowned Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Puget Sound before coming to Cedarville. Lesh said they were fortunate to get Mahon as their first instructor.
“Getting someone with his experience right out of the gate is incredible, he’s a terrific craftsman and terrific teacher,” Lesh said of Mahon. Lesh said they plan on hiring another instructor when they we reach 10 enrollees and expect to have a total of 35 students once the word gets out.
Students in the school start out learning the basics of woodworking, using traditional hand tools and power tools to build a shipwright’s tool chest, which is theirs to keep. They will then advance to learning, via lectures and hands-on training, the complicated task of lofting, which is done in what looks like a loft on the second floor. During the first quarter of the year they will use their acquired skills to construct a small skiff.
The school year is divided into three quarters with an optional fourth quarter in the summer. Each quarter the students progress both in and out of the classroom, which culminates in building a full-sized pleasure craft.
When I visited the school the students were fashioning a 21- foot utility launch, a pleasure craft with a shallow draft that doesn’t need deep water to launch. While they plan to donate boats to nonprofit organizations in the future, this first boat to go out the door is a keeper.
“We think it will be a great boat to have out here and for boat shows,” Lesh said.
The next boat they build, a 20-foot sailboat with a fixed keel, will be donated to an organization for the handicapped out of Harbor Springs. The boat will be built with special accommodations and controls for the physically and mentally handicapped passengers. The school is not able to sell boats for a profit due to their status as a nonprofit organization.
So what can students do with a certificate in boat building? Several things, said Lesh. For one thing, they can transfer up to 32 credits to a local community college (North Central Michigan College in Petoskey) and continue to get an associate degree. And of course they can build and/or repair boats.
“The market for custom and large boats is very healthy,” Lesh said. The limited number of schools teaching the craft is keeping the demand for boat builders and restorers high, according to Lesh.
Bryan Madigan of Traverse City, who quit a job in the building trades in the Traverse area to come to Cedarville, is planning to put his skills to work when he returns to Traverse City to be with his wife and two children.
“I’m hoping to start a business in Traverse,” said the 39-year-old Madigan. He said he was looking for something “outside the norm” when he enrolled in the new school. So far, he seems to have no regrets about his decision.
“I really feel I’m getting the tools to do this,” Madigan said. “They really challenge us as students to make the best of our time.”

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