Drive down venerable Thames Street in Newport, RI and you'll eventually pass a legendary breakfast hauntGary's Handy Lunchwhere locals congregate to banter about everything from the status of the region's declining fishing industry to which super yachts are in town. Behind the large glass windows one morning in late May, the talk centered on wooden boats. Not any wooden boats mind you, but the small fleet of sailing gems that was about to be relaunched just across the street at the International Yacht Restoration School. That's rightrelaunched.
Each spring, students at the IYRS enjoy what has become an annual rite of passage when many of the boats they've worked to restore throughout the year are put back in the water. The occasion is timed to coincide with the school's anniversary, and thus each year becomes more and more of a celebration. This year the organization relaunched eight Beetle Cats and two classic sloops. The vessels, like many onlookers in attendance, were fittingly decked out, complete with flowers adorning their decks.
"Today we're celebrating beauty," says Ruth Taylor, President of IYRS as she addresses the 18 students and some 300-plus guests attending the relaunching ceremony. "You can say accurately that the boats we start with are wrecks. But today, we're celebrating something that evokes beauty
.Taking something apart you really understand it," she continues. "You've all begun to be craftsmen, and you're well on your way to personal discovery
.We celebrate with you a better future. We celebrate that your work will enrich not only you, but the owners, the users, and the viewers of these boats."
If you look beyond the dilapidated state of many of the vessels that reside within the IYRS's two-and-a-half-acre compound awaiting restoration, you'll see that beauty abounds here. From the simple Beetle Cats to the magnificent yet tired 133-foot schooner Coronetthe school's soon-to-be flag shipthe organization has a surfeit of comely craft. Stepping inside the 10,000-square-foot restoration hall, you can see at least one work in progress as the Concordia yawl Java sits stripped of most of her planking. Despite this ill-dressed state, the classic lines and elegant essence of this vessel are unmistakable.
Housed in two adjacent historical buildings (one a former power generating plant) on Howard Wharf in the heart of Newport's Yachting Village, the IYRS is the brainchild of Elizabeth Meyer, the Levi-Strauss heiress who is well known in classic yachting circles for using her considerable wherewithal to rescue a number of significant vessels. In the last decade, Meyer was largely responsible for the restoration of two J-Class yachts Shamrock V and Endeavour.
Her aspirations for the IYRS were no less grand, establishing the school in 1996 as a means of preserving some of sailing's tradition by way of training people to restore wooden vessels. Each year in the fall, 12 full-time students enroll in the school's two-year programs. The students are essentially apprentices, and though there is a fixed curriculum, they themselves say the experience is more like work than attending classes. First-year students undergo lessons on lofting, surveying, and estimating and eventually pair up with peers to work in two person teams rebuilding various boatsprimarily Beetle Cats.
|"Established in 1996, the school was intended to be a means of preserving tradition by training people to restore wooden vessels."|
Taylor recalls that the school began as an avocational outlet, "But it quickly became apparent that vocational opportunities were needed," she says. She now refers to the IYRS as "a vocational school plus," saying modestly that it participates in the rescue and restoration of old wooden boats. "We get boats donated," explains Taylor, "because owners often realize that they can't keep the boats in the shape they'd like." Once the boats are restored, they're usually sold. "Last year," recounts Taylor, "all of the boats sold on launching day." She says they're all the smaller boats are restored to a minimum standard, arguably comparable to a new production-built Beetle Cat. The IYRS charges $10,000 for these boats, and according to Taylor, there's roughly a two-year wait for boats to get into the restoration line up.
One of the boats launched this spring is the 1927, 24-foot Eagle, which was restored principally by second-year students Patrick Albrecht of Switzerland and Simon Gigac of Quebec, working alongside a third student from Australia. (Yes, the school does live up to its international billing). Prior to the ceremonies, Albrecht and Gigac sat in Eagle's cockpit, anxious to have all the speeches over with so that they could experience their charge under sail.
"We try for perfection," says Albrecht, sitting proudly amid bronze and brass fittings and brightwork all glistening around him. He explains that they originally thought the rebuild would take them two months, but when they discovered rot near the keel, he says, "we just kept digging and digging. We refastened most of the boat using copper rivets," says Albrecht. "We pounded every rivet by handone at a time."
Later this summer Albrecht and Gigac will finish their programs at IYRS and become two of 12 graduates that the school will have turned out since its inception. Like their fellow classmates, they intend to find employment restoring and building classic boats somewhere. Perhaps they'll end up here in Newport working on Coronet, which is scheduled to undergo restoration in earnest sometime later next year. Or perhaps they'll each head homeward to fortify the efforts of classic boat restoration in their own countries. Wherever they go, sailors everywhere will be the beneficiaries of their work because we'll all be able to appreciate the boats they bring back to life. Here's to the beauticians of Newport and the IYRS.
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