Short, twisted coastal oak trees thrive on the grounds of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. A low brick wall separates the towering lighthouse and its clipped lawn from scrubby oaks and three tents that house a volunteer boat building project called Heritage Boatworks.
Founded in 2007, Heritage Boatworks is a wooden boat building program dedicated to curating skills once prominent on the First Coast. A committed team of volunteers works to build historically important boats under the tents every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon, weather permitting.
Their open tents prohibit work when the weather is poor. So “if it’s raining, we don’t work,” faithful volunteer Len Stuart says. “If it’s windy, we don’t work.” Working when you want is one of the benefits of being retired.
“We were all from different disciplines,” Stuart says. “I’m from marketing and sales, Stoney [Roland Stonaker] was a Navy pilot.” And, he says, Paul Bschorr was an attorney.
“I get all the lawyer jokes,” Bschorr says with a laugh.
“Paul was building model ships. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you come do the real thing?” Stuart says.
While many of the 18 to 20 boat builders enjoyed woodworking as a hobby before volunteering, few worked with wood for a living. Now they get to enjoy their hobby as part of a collaborative team working for a good cause. The money raised from sales of the boats they make goes to benefit the lighthouse.
Mike Grinney, one of the newer volunteers, says his time under the tent has given him an appreciation for boat building in the old days. “This is an entirely different dimension,” he says. “These are banana shaped boards. If I saw these in a lumberyard, I’d reject them.” One recent day he was “fairing,” making the hull smooth and evenly curved. “We want nice, flowing lines so it looks as beautiful as it can,” he says, running a hand over the hull to feel for places that need additional work.
Retired lawyer Bschorr was doing the same on the other side of the bow, but he doesn’t claim to be an expert, yet. “I’m the new guy,” he says. “I do a lot of sweeping.”
Their teamwork has allowed Heritage Boatworks to complete 14 projects since 2007. Rowboats, tenders, sailboats and dinghies have been built and displayed in museums, used on historic ships and donated to fundraising raffles.
Retired surgeon Jim Gaskins is the senior man of the crew. This August marks his eighth year. “There’s a boat builder up in Maine that builds this boat for twenty-one thousand dollars,” he says. “The winner of this drawing is getting a nice boat for a five dollar ticket.”
Gaskins takes pieces that require detailed work home to his woodshop. “The backbone of that yawl and all the live oak material, I did in my shop,” he says. Live oak is the best backbone for a boat, he says, due to its density and strength. “That came from a tree they had to cut down from Flagler College,” he points out. “It’s local. All the frames in Old Ironsides, the Constitution, were built from live oak exactly like this – same as we’re doing.”
“Certain woods lend themselves to boat building,” Gaskins says. Knowledge about which wood best suits a task is passed from one generation of boat builders to the next. White oak and live oak are sturdy woods used for framing, cypress is often selected for planking and African mahogany plywood is prized for its beauty. They also know what not to use. “Red oak soaks water up like a sponge,” Gaskins says, “and it rots.”
Pointing to the rivets along the sides of the boat, he says, “See these little rivets? Nine hundred and sixty of ‘em – all put in by hand.”
John Lubbehusen is the only volunteer with a boatbuilding background. He apprenticed with a German shipwright in college and continued dabbling in the art of historic boat building throughout his career as an architect. Now that he’s retired from the world of architecture, he is again pursuing boatbuilding. “I specialize in historic boats and wood boats,” he says. He was once commissioned to build a boat for an Andy Garcia film, Hemingway & Fuentes.
He also takes the time to teach the other volunteers what he knows.
Teaching new volunteers is integral to the mission of the program. Gerry Paradiso, a retired wood shop teacher from New Jersey, spends about 9 hours on site every week. “We moved to St Augustine in 2010,” he says. “I always wanted to learn how to build wooden boats.” Once he connected with the Boatworks volunteers, he soaked up instruction while also teaching new members. He says his motto is “learning should never cease.”
The volunteers say they also enjoy the socialization.
“Part of our job is to talk to the guests of the lighthouse,” Stonaker says. “That’s a reason we’re not too fast completing the boats.”
Flagler College’s Crisp-Ellert Fund recognized the importance of curating the boatbuilding folk art, and so extended a grant to underwrite construction of two boats currently in progress. They will remain on display at the lighthouse. In an age where instant gratification is king, and hobbies are personalized, they will give testament to a group of volunteers who are giving their time to benefit the community, preserve history and share skills that were once ubiquitous with survival.
Veteran builder Richard Sexauer says he is grateful that the community recognizes the value of Heritage Boatworks. “We actually got a grant to build this boat,” he says, pointing to a project he coordinates. “They consider it an art form.”
Fun Facts about Heritage Boatworks
They typically build one boat a year to be raffled off; the proceeds go to the St. Augustine Lighthouse, a nonprofit organization.
Raffle tickets cost $5 each; five for $20 – and can be purchased at the St. Augustine Lighthouse gift shop.
The boats they build would retail for between $12,000 and $19,000.