NEWPORT - Andrew Robb did his time at college, four years of dull lectures and dimly lit libraries in landlocked Schenectady, N.Y. That seems like another lifetime, he said as he admired a carvel-planked sailboat he lovingly restored, a sea breeze wafting through the waterfront warehouse.
In a way, the yacht has restored him as well.
"I didn't see myself taking a desk job, working at PricewaterhouseCoopers or something," said the sturdy, thick-armed 24-year-old, a first-year student at the International Yacht Restoration School. "This is for me," he said, gesturing across a room of students putting the finishing touches on handmade, wooden 12-foot Beetle Cats. "This is perfect."
The two-year trade school, overlooking the harbor at the heart of this grand sailing town, is among a handful in the country that teaches the timeless handiwork of traditional boat making. Best known for its yacht-restoration program, it has also built a strong reputation for producing modern shipwrights and system technicians and is considered a crucial training ground to address a shortage of skilled workers in the growing New England marine industry.
For those who love boats, especially classic wooden craft built with bench planes and handsaws, the school is some kind of heaven, a place where old yachts become new again. Here, cedar and oak are painstakingly shaped into sleek curves that can slice through swells, by students who come to love every contour.
"Nothing but curves," Ken Beck, a 29-year-old former cabinet maker from Newport, said as he gazed with pride at his nearly complete sailboat. "I love every aspect of it. It's the pinnacle of woodworking."
Students in the restoration program have returned nearly 100 historic boats to the water; they plan to return 12 more at the school's graduation today in a triumphant yearly tradition. Hewing to the old sailors' saw that "ships and men rot in port," the school sells its restored vessels for active use, putting the proceeds back into school programs. The boats deserve it, students said.
"Much better than collecting dust, with a vase with wax flowers," Beck said with a chuckle.
The school, which opened in 1996, has grown in recent years to its current 38 students, mostly men in their 20s. Clark Poston, the school's program director, said the curriculum, designed to mirror the boatmaking industry, combines theoretical and hands-on work. After tutorials in wooden hull construction, surveying, and drawing and design exercises, the traditional restorations begin.
"Then, it's all about the boats," Poston said.
In a four-story brick building hard on Newport's trendy Thames Street, students work on boats donated to the school in various states of disrepair and essentially rebuild them from scratch. They use no fiberglass, no computer programs, and even shun tape measures.
"A lot of fairing is just by eyesight," said Kenny Grauer, 22, a first-year student who was referring to the process of shaping the framework of a boat. "It's just seeing the curves."
For many students, the old-fashioned technique appeals to their sense of tradition and workmanship. With manufactured epoxies the only concessions to modernity, the building process feels real and natural, they said. Combined with the precise, patient nature of the work, the finished product brings a feeling of profound accomplishment.
"I made this," Robb said of his oak-and-cedar craft, a boat similar to those he sailed on Lake Sunapee when growing up in New Hampshire. "There's a lot of pride in that."
Boatsmen, too, see grace and grandeur in classic wooden sailboats, said Eric Stockinger, who directs the apprentice shop at Atlantic Challenge, a traditional boatbuilding program in Rockland, Maine. That has given rise to a small but lucrative niche in the industry, builders say.
"The plank-on-frame is a pretty good market these days," he said. "There is definitely a romanticization of wooden boats."
Nicole Jacques of The Landing School in Arundel, Maine, agreed, saying "there's a pretty big contingent of people who really appreciate the classic boats."
"It's almost like the boats themselves have personalities," she said.
The certificate program, which runs from 9 to 5 weekdays, is fast-paced and intense, with a learning curve that even experienced woodworkers may find steep.
This summer, first-year students will take part in an internship or independent project and during their second year will work in groups to tackle more advanced restorations. In the 10-month marine systems certificate program, launched last fall, students learn how to install, maintain, and repair onboard systems found on powerboats and sailboats.
Some graduates will pursue restoration work, but most will work at modern shipyards, where their knowledge of the traditional plank-on-frame technique remains valuable.
"It's transferable across mediums," Poston said. "The skills they learn are fundamental. They are the bedrock of all boat building."
According to Rhode Island's Department of Labor and Training, the state's ship and boatbuilding industry is projected to add 1,000 jobs over the next seven years.
The school charges $12,000 a year in tuition, and most students cobble together the money through loans and scholarships and by working nights and weekends.
Mike New, education director at the American Boat & Yacht Council, the certifying authority for boat manufacturers, said the "industry is screaming for more people."
"Boats today are getting very complex, even more so than cars," he said.
Students said they realize they are living a widely held dream that has captivated legions of weekend sailors and builders. But students warn that the program is far more than fun.
"You think it's going to be fun," Grauer said. "But it's so much better."