BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — St. John’s Prep is known for its academics and sports, but for the past few months, members of the engineering club have been learning what it takes to build a wooden rowboat.
It has been a challenge building the 131/2-foot, flat-bottom “Sissy Do” skiff. But with the boat nearing completion, the process turned out to be a good way for physics teacher Marcus Soule, who also advises the engineering club, to give students a hands-on learning experience.
“I was trying to find one project everyone would be interested in and could work on,” Soule said. He learned that senior Joe Caruso of Reading had built a boat with his dad, Joe Caruso Sr., and had interned last summer with Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, helping to build a 28-foot whaleboat.
“I went to Joe and said, ‘Hey, I would love to build a boat. Could you teach me how?’ And Joe said, ‘Sure,’ and that’s how we got started,’ ” said Soule, who is learning how to build the boat at the same time his students are.
The other boat builders include freshman Matt Gray of Marblehead, junior Brady Bernstein of Newfields, N.H., freshman Matt Arsenault of Dracut and sophomore Josh George of Marblehead.
Gray not only comes from a town with a long history of boating, but his father, Brian, is founder and president of inflatable boat maker Ribcraft USA, which is based in Marblehead.
“I’ve built Ribs with him before,” Gray said, “but I’ve never built a solid-side boat before.”
In the past few months, the students have painstakingly turned a pile of lumber into a rowboat. For about three months, they worked after school at Danversport Yacht Club Marina.
Two weeks ago, the operation moved into a former facilities office in a campus basement.
The young men spent much of their February vacation working on the boat. Friday morning, they sealed the inside of the hull with epoxy to make it watertight. Next will come sanding, applying fiberglass, priming and painting it.
The club is using plans from a California company called Glen-L Marine Designs, which sells plans for amateur boat builders. The design carries the unfortunate name “Sissy Do,” which was named by the young daughter of the company’s founder.
There was a learning curve to overcome, Soule said.
“These guys are learning how to use a handsaw properly, how to drill properly ... learning about materials and all those other types of basic stuff,” he said.
The students said they have learned a lot by building the boat.
“I didn’t know how to do most of this stuff. Epoxy I never worked with; a lot of this I had never done.” Arsenault said.
Caruso Sr., a recently retired CEO, said it was great working alongside his son and the students.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime project for many of them,” he said. “It’s a chance for them to work together, a lot of teamwork, a lot of problem solving, a lot of mistakes you have to fix, which is always part of life.”
Lessons learned through boat building and hands-on work are immediate, Soule noted, unlike the lessons in a traditional classroom experience.
“The feedback is immediate,” Soule said. “They cut a board too short, they know it.”
Once the boat is finished, the club plans to donate it to the school to be auctioned off during the Prep’s gala on March 22.
A blog tracking the construction of St. John’s Prep’s Sissy Do is at http://www.stjohnsprep.org/page.cfm?p=10641
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.