Kanish Creary was the first student to set sail on the Phantom Ship. Dressed in a plastic rain poncho and life vest, Kanish confidently sailed toward the misty skyline of Manhattan on an Optimist pram, a 7-foot wooden boat adorned with a bright white sail.
It was a feat for Kanish, not only because it was her first time sailing, but because the boat she was riding in was built with her own hands.
Kanish is 11 and in sixth grade. She worked with a group of students from her school, J.H.S. 292, in Brooklyn, New York, to construct the boat. She likes to “give things a shot” so, with her Tuesday afternoons free, she signed up for an after-school program called Brooklyn Boatworks.
Throughout the school year, she and her classmates transformed four sheets of plywood into a sailboat, using saws, hammers, clamps and drills.
Kanish’s mother, Christine Creary, said at first she doubted her daughter could build a boat. Today, Creary’s proud to see her setting sail. “I’ve never seen her doing anything like this before,” Creary said. “So this is a new adventure.”
Huddled underneath a canopy to protect her from the rain, her mother smiled, waved and snapped photos of Kanish floating out into the harbor. Eight other boats bobbed in the water as students from Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn sailed into the harbor at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Kanish is one of 127 students to participate in this year’s Brooklyn Boatworks program. Brooklyn Boatworks is a nonprofit that brings a boat-building program to students in schools across New York City. This year, Brooklyn Boatworks worked with students from nine different schools, though they hope to scale the program in coming years.
Through the boat-building process, students gain hands-on STEM expertise and social skills. The program incorporates tool safety, map reading, environmental education, construction and project management. During the course of the school year, the students also go on field trips to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, South Street Seaport, New York Harbor School and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Education Center, where they learn about New York’s maritime history and local sea life.
“Our goal is not that everybody becomes the captain of a ship, the goal is that students feel successful to achieve big dreams to go after what they want,” Marjorie Schulman, Brooklyn Boatworks’ executive director told NationSwell.
The schools choose who participates, and it’s “usually it’s a mix of students who are achieving [and] who are not achieving,” said Schulman. Some schools hold writing contests for students who want to participate, while others hand select students to participate in the program.
“Not everybody thrives in a traditional school environment, so our model works for students who are traditionally successful in the school as well as those who aren’t,” Schulman said.
Groups of no more than 12 students build a boat over the course of the school year. This year, 11 boats were built by students in the program.
“It’s really a feat for them to be on the water and to be in the boat that they built and have the trust that it’s going to float,” Schulman said.
Their 30 weeks of hard work culminate in one day in June. The schools come together at Brooklyn Bridge Park for a graduation ceremony and to set sail in their completed boats.
A group of girls huddled around each other, giggling and chatting by the water on Pier 2. They said they named their boat Pizza Sail because pizza is their favorite food. “And because the sail looks like a slice of pizza,” they exclaimed.
The STEM skills students gain from the program are important, but equally important are the social skills, said Schulman. The girls are best friends now, but at the beginning of the school year, they hadn’t all known each other. “Now we always say hi when we pass each other in the hallway,” said Aspia, one of the middle schoolers. Students learn how to be a leader and also how to follow one, Schulman said.
Pat Nason, an instructor, agreed. He said the goal of the program isn’t just to build a boat, but to create a safe space for students. A space where it’s OK to fail or take a break or be frustrated. As long as the students learn from those moments. Throughout the year, he watched as attitudes and confidence levels changed.
“There was a certain point where we realized we were near completion, and I could see their confidence levels get much higher,” he said.
The students’ confidence showed as Phantom Ship successfully floated along with the eight other boats with eccentric names: Savage Geniuses, Sea Okurrr, Get Wrecked. Students signed up one at a time to take a ride in their self-constructed boats. Each student was paired with a sailing instructor who helped navigate the winds.
Tisman Coleman said it was great to see his daughter out sailing. For most schools, the program functions as a two-hour after-school program. Coleman said every Tuesday, his daughter was sure to remind him that she’d be coming home late because of Boatworks.
“My child, the most she ever built was Legos,” he said. Now Coleman has a helping hand for tasks around the house. His daughter can now use a handsaw, hammer, drill and screwdriver like it’s second nature. “She’s already my little kitchen helper,” he said. “Now I can start making her help me with other stuff.”
Mike Sangirardi, a dean at I.S. 125 in Queens, New York, heard about the program from some of the participating schools.
Outside of the skills the students learn, they’re also gaining a better understanding of their urban environment. Many students don’t realize they’re living on an island, Sangirardi said. Some can’t swim and others have never seen the waterfront. The program gives them a chance to connect with their surroundings.
Sangirardi said as a dean he sometimes works with “students who are causing trouble.” By interacting with some of the same students at Brooklyn Boatworks, he gets to see those students shine. His favorite part is at the end of each session when the students gather around and reflect on how they’re feeling.
“They did something productive,” he said. “That’s better than being on their cellphones.”
The sense of achievement extends past the program and into their everyday lives.
“There’s this level of accomplishment that they can feel,” Schulman said. “And maybe it’s the first time that they’ve really felt success in the school year.”