SEARSPORT — The high school’s four-year-old boatbuilding program is navigating through a sea of educational change, but fair winds seem to lie ahead. The program is moving downtown and other upgrades are in the works.

Searsport District High School’s shellback dinghy course is now based at the old seine loft building where its long-time owner Wayne Hamilton ran his business, Hamilton Marine, before moving to a larger space just east of town. Hamilton donated the 6,000-square-foot waterfront building, valued at $360,000, to the Penobscot Marine Museum in December.

High school principal Brian Campbell hopes others will follow Hamilton’s lead by donating to further renovate the facility and support such hands-on education.

The Hamilton Learning Center would cost an estimated $225,000 to remodel and equip. Campbell is seeking grants and donations to support the project.

“It would reshape education in the Midcoast region,” he said of the vision educators and others have for the facility.

Though the museum will continue to own the building, it would serve as an off-campus learning center for the high school, starting immediately with the boat-building class. But there are bigger plans in the works, which he predicted would attract tuition students from across Maine and beyond. The facility also would raise the aspirations of local students.

“I’d like to give these kids as much of a rich experience as we can so they know, ‘Hey, I can do whatever I want,'” he said. “Our kids kind of handicap themselves.”

Campbell plans to renovate the facility to support programs a regular classroom can’t accommodate, such as:

“Kids can’t be passive recipients anymore,” he said. “They can’t just memorize and regurgitate.”


The boatbuilding class resumed after Christmas break in the new space. Before, they worked in the marine museum’s old brick vestry off Route 1.

Master boatbuilder Greg Rössel, 61, of Troy teaches the class with help from dedicated volunteers who come from as far as Carmel and Castine.

“They are there to help the kids,” he said. “They are not their parents. They’re not their teachers. It’s a good relationship.”

The course offers students a practical application of math and science skills, and is not unlike the adult boatbuilding class Rössel has taught for 26 years at WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, “just without the beer at the end of the day.”

Students build traditional shellback dinghies, which are sailing semi-dories designed by the late Joel White, son of legendary writer E.B. White. Students do it all, from cutting out the pieces to fastening, drilling and working with composite materials.

“The kids aren’t just standing around watching us do stuff,” Rössel said. “It is hands on.”

The teens learn about how sails work. They use geometry and ratios, fractions, statistics, and learn about exothermic reactions.

“They are actually using all this stuff, not just sitting in class thinking, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to escape to the bathroom and look at my phone?'” Rössel said.

The boats are launched in May, so students use double class periods to finish the building and painting.

“We go at it hammer and tongs. They hit the place like a summer squall,” he said.

It is an ambitious schedule, even for professionals, Rössel said, since the teens do 95 percent of the boatbuilding.

The program teaches life skills like teamwork, while letting teens put to use lessons they have learned in the classroom.

“The boats are kind of a foil to utilize these skills they’ve learned already,” he said. “And they’re also learning about being responsible, getting things done, and seeing people depend on you.”

Students sign up for the course, and are a mix of college-bound teens and vocational school candidates.


In the end, there are two hand-built boats, fully rigged with brownish-red sails and oars, launched at the town landing and then sold or raffled.

“Strangely enough, they all float,” Rössel joked. Launch day is “a graduation of sorts, except nobody’s wearing caps and gowns. Instead, they’re wearing shorts and slickers.”

There are adults on hand to round up any wayward dinghies during the launch. Though many of the teens have lived near the water all their lives, some have never been on it, he said.

“We make sure they don’t end up in Portugal,” he chuckled.

The experience is fun, connects them to their heritage, and provides “stealth learning,” said Rössel, who encourages teens to consider college engineering programs.

“I tell them they are just as smart as anyone, or more so. It’s all about potential and possibilities.”

Campbell said a facility like the Hamilton Learning Center would be life-altering for local youth.

“These kids lack an understanding of what opportunities are available to them,” he said. “They have low aspirations and they don’t see themselves as being capable of achieving things they want to achieve.”

In his fourth year at Searsport District High School, Campbell said he constantly tells staff and students, “Why can’t we be the best? We can do it. We don’t limit ourselves.”

The project has a five-year phase-in process.

“We need a skilled workforce, and this could reinvigorate Maine’s economy,” he said.

For more about the Hamilton Learning Center, call Campbell at 548-2313.