Before she started learning how to build a boat, Angelina Rivera had no idea how to use a hammer—or even that a shop where boats are built exists in her Camden hometown. “Not a lot of people in the community can say, ‘I built a boat,’” says Rivera, a ninth-grader at the UrbanPromise Academy in Camden.
She set out to tackle that challenge this past fall by enrolling in the Urban BoatWorks program, whose volunteers have taught about 500 middle and high school students from all over the area how to build wooden paddleboats, canoes and kayaks since 2009. “We’re the largest boat builder in Camden today. We’re the only one,” says Jim Cummings, the Director of Experiential Learning at the Christian-based nonprofit UrbanPromise, which oversees Urban BoatWorks.
That wasn’t always the case. From 1899 to 1968, Camden, on the Delaware River, was home to the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at what was thought to be the world’s largest shipyard. It shut down so long ago that youngsters don’t know it existed. In the years since, Camden has suffered, with crime rates that have only begun to drop recently. But Camden holds to its shipbuilding heritage. No more than a mile from the old grounds, the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum remains open in a converted Episcopal church. One wing houses Urban BoatWorks.
While older volunteers refurbish boats and build new ones from racks of cedar, instructors teach approximately six students each year how to build boats, often from kits. They learn to solve problems together and utilize their math skills.
The students work on boats year-round, and the finished products are launched at the Cooper River Yacht Club every June. Many are kept in the program’s fleet, while a few are sold or auctioned.
The students’ fear factors are confronted, too: The orientation includes swimming lessons and a guided boat ride on the river, which many of these students have never done. “I was worried about the boat tipping over,” says Keith Delgado, a ninth-grader from Pennsauken. “As I got used to the boat not tipping over, it was pretty much fun.” Cummings remembers one of his first Urban BoatWorks students, who recently graduated from law school, saying, “I realized I created a masterpiece.” Some 65 of these masterpieces have been created, with more to come.
The process can be tedious, and some students prove to be better at the craft than others. When the boats are finally launched, though, Cummings gets everyone to shout, “I built a boat!” Most students never thought they’d accomplish such a thing.