Preserving the Heritage by Preserving the Skills

Dick Wagner
Founding Director
The Center for Wooden Boats
Seattle, Washington

I. Who we are.

The Center for Wooden Boats is a maritime museum focusing on the small boats of our past. We have more than 100 vessels of historic significance on display, representing diverse functions and diverse cultures. Most are in the water or next to the water, ready to launch. We are a "do-touch" museum because we believe the most challenging and long-lasting means of education is direct experience. And educating about our maritime heritage is our mission. Our boats are classrooms - and so is our Boatshop, which also floats. In the boats or in the Boatshop, visitors learn maritime heritage by doing it. They learn the skills to sail the old boats and build the classics. The whole CWB environment is on the water. We are a floating village, which is a historic metaphor of Seattle.

CWB is located on a lake in the center of the city, a few blocks from the core business district. We have created a site within the city that is an oasis of tranquillity, where one is separate from the urban bustle. The cries of Canada Geese drown out the roar of vehicles. We have muskrats that nest along the bank and frequent visits from Great Blue Heron, Bittern, Kingfisher and beaver. This environment is, in effect, light years away from the scream of police sirens and the clang of garbage cans. It is a neutral, non-threatening environment, conducive to receiving new signals, signals from the past. Our physical boundaries are about two acres. Our wetland boundaries are the 700 acres of Lake Union. And, when one is in one of our boats, the campus is extended as far as the boat goes. In that sense, we may be the world's largest maritime museum. Besides that, we consistently have been officially chosen as one of Seattle's "best places for a cheap date" by the publication, Seattle's Best Places, and recently we were singled out in the guide, Romantic Places in the Northwest, as "one of the best places to kiss."

II. What we do.

CWB is a museum of programs. The programs are instruction in traditional maritime skills. Our exhibits are put to work. Those boats that need restoration are restored where the public can watch, ask questions and be encouraged to participate. Every museum has a back room where the dinosaur bones or Ming china is restored. At CWB every place is the back room and the public is invited in.

Over the years, the subjects of our workshops in maritime heritage skills have pretty much remained the same, but the audience has grown to include the wide spectrum of our community. A great example of the inclusiveness of CWB is that a replica 26' Umiak built in the summer of 1996 by a class of high-risk teenagers is being paddled twice a week by a team of Hawaiian native dancers to help reinstill their sense of teamwork. We hope. through our environment and programs, to be an integral part of our community where everyone, no matter what their age, abilities or cultural background, can be welcome and comfortable. We see our role as a community center with a maritime heritage spin. We do not charge admission.

School and group field trips include getting aboard various boats and, weather permitting, a sail in one of our larger boats or a paddle in the Umiak. Within a few minutes of leaving the dock, even pre-schoolers begin to get the hang of paddling as a crew. There is room for 20 five-year-olds, each with a paddle, but it only takes one on each side to get the Umiak moving.

"Cast Off" is our program to give free half-hour rides in our 20' 1906 steam launch, Puffin, or one of our larger sailboats. The idea is for people to get an instant introduction to a hands-on museum.

Sail NOW! is basic sailing instruction where the goal is to have students solo in all our livery boats. Instruction is year-round on Saturdays and Sundays and weekday evenings June through August.

Livery- Where our visitors can rent a variety of rowing and sailing vessels. Renting a classic wooden boat in a classic lakeside setting is an experience one will long remember.

Boat Festival - our yearly gigantic public relations event where about 150 wooden boats of all sizes and vintages gather with the idea of an event that is affordable, accessible and educational. Boats must allow the public to board; small boats take visitors for a sail. There are skills demonstrations, including a Quick & Daring boatbuilding contest and a Toy Boat workshop.

Sail Away Challenge - a weekend sailing clinic for physically disabled people. We hold these one to three times each summer.

People with AIDS arrive every Wednesday afternoon for either a sailboat ride or to work as volunteers. This winter that made small boat models as Christmas tree decorations for us to sell in our gift shop.

Youth programs are of prime importance to us. We give sailing instruction to public and private school kids, including Seattle's Alternative School #1 which organized its own yacht club.

During the summer, our youth programs include one-week sailing instruction sessions for Boy Scout troops. Our Summer in the City program provides one-week sessions in sailing and seamanship for middle-school-aged youngsters. We also provide World of Wonder, a week-long rowing and seamanship class for 5- to 7-year olds.

"All Aboard" is the umbrella for our various programs for at-risk youth. Communities throughout America are witnessing a crisis in public education. Kids are dropping out due to lack of purpose and confidence "All Aboard" is about using the resources of heritage small boats to give teenagers in crisis the life skills, sense of purpose and confidence they lack. We believe "All Aboard" gives high-risk youth their last and best opportunity to succeed in mainstream learning and society. "All Aboard" involves practical use of math, science, social studies, language arts and maritime history in an adventure environment.

This program is a proven success in changing the lives of youths on the threshold of desperation. We have endorsements of the effects of "All Aboard" from the mental health professionals who have placed their clients in "All Aboard." We believe the program should be an example and goal for others working to rehabilitate youth at risk. Possibly more significant is that we have also successfully used the "All Aboard" concept of learning by doing with other groups, including people with AIDS, people with physical disabilities, the deaf, developmentally disabled people, desk-bound bureaucrats and college-bound youth. They all leave CWB exhilarated by their learning experience, passionate about the boat they built or the skills they learned and bonded to CWB. This program for at-risk youth is fuel for learning that benefits people of all ages and abilities.

III Why we do it.

All museums want to know how they measure up, how the public feels about them. The usual means of evaluation is the guest register. Comments are always positive: "We had a great time" or "Wonderful exhibits." No one dares say, "My feet got tired" or "I was really bored."

The dream of every museum is to somehow make a change in the lives, or at least the horizons of knowledge of their visitors. At CWB, we can see measurable changes. After their first ride in a Whitehall or a Cape Cod cat boat or our steam launch, people walk away smiling, excited. Many leave with skills they never thought they would learn: how to build a wooden boat or how to sail a classic. And, like four-year-old Christopher who told his pre-school teacher after a field trip, "I want to come back to this please touch place real soon," they do.

That's why we do it: Evaluations that really count!

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Version 1.01, 7 July 1997