Urban Boatbuilders: Rockin’ the boat to discover new skills

Lanisha Wheatley, a junior at River’s Edge Academy, and Andrew Vega, a senior at Jennings Community Learning Center, attach ribs to a canoe frame at Urban Boatbuilders.
Photo By: John Doman

The smell of sawdust lingers in the air of a room with the skeleton of a canoe lying in the middle. Hidden in the Midway area of St. Paul, in a storefront converted into a workshop, large pieces of wood hang from the ceiling on chains.

The loud booming noise of the electrical machines drone as a student cuts a wood panel for the canoe. He’s surrounded by stacks of wood on shelves up against the wall. Bright sunlight comes through the front door and windows light up the entire room.

This is a normal day for students at Urban Boatbuilders, a nonprofit youth development organization that combines building wooden boats with academic and leadership skills.

Since boating is a big part of Minnesota’s outdoors culture, the organization aims to pair its popularity with educational successes. However, it targets students from predominantly inner city backgrounds—pushing them to try something out of their comfort zone.

Tori Callahan measures the handle of her personal project, a canoe panel, in the Urban workshop.
Photo By: John Doman

For more information about Urban Boatbuilders, call (651) 644-9225 or visit urbanboatbuilders.org.

“It’s a really unique opportunity for youth to engage with adults in a positive way and (to gain) a new experience,” said Marc Hosmer, executive director of Urban Boatbuilders.

“About 75 percent of the students we work with in a given year are coming out of juvenile corrections facilities, and on average 50 percent of those youths would re-offend, where our program is less than 20 percent. It’s providing an opportunity for them to really change their lives.”

Advanced building skills aren’t needed at Urban Boatbuilders, though it does have an application and interview process. Not every student might succeed in a classroom setting, but hands-on boatbuilding is a way to make learning come alive, Hosmer said.

Urban Boatbuilders, located on Pascal Street in St. Paul, hosts two programs designed to reach students across the metro area. They are nine hours a week over a six-month period.

Boatbuilding, as one might expect, features multiple steps. Students begin by drawing out the boat’s foundation on paper, then cutting all the pieces of wood into the right shapes and sizes. The instructor outlines each step to the students and they are given personal projects to complete. Once the boat pieces are put together, sandpaper is used to smooth the structure out. Finally, a finishing coat of oil and paint is added to make the boat shine and look unique.

Program founders Dave Gagne, Mike Temali and Seitu Jones came up with the idea when one of them found an old boat to restore and asked the others for help. They decided to get youth involved, and after making some community connections, launched in 1995.

Since it was founded, Urban Boatbuilders has completed more than 200 boats while working with more than 3,000 youths across 60 different agencies, schools and juvenile corrections programs, Hosmer said.

“What makes it great is that boat building isn’t really a tangible thing for kids to do. They start with a pile of sticks, and typically in about 70 hours, that pile of sticks becomes a beautiful finished boat they can use and launch on the water,” he said.

Students also apply the knowledge of STEM classes by “creating with their hands.”

“People learned math and other things through ‘doing’ for thousands of years. Building the pyramids … that’s how people learned math. It was constructing. It was building,” Hosmer said.

Once students finish their boats, they take them out on the water. Some boats are sold to consumers and the money supports the program, Hosmer said.

Tori Callahan, 16, has been with Urban Boatbuilders for a few months. She enjoys applying her artistry to paddles and unique boat construction.

“I didn’t use the same wood. I wanted my paddle to be different,” Callahan said proudly.

Though she has only been on a small canoe once, her group is planning on taking the boats they build to the Boundary Waters.

“I am excited and nervous. I’m nervous because we’re actually going to use our boats,” Callahan said.

Angela Robins, an instructor at Urban Boatbuilders, has been with the organization since January. She enjoys working with teenagers in an environment that promotes personal responsibility and independence.

“You’re starting to take yourself more seriously, but there’s still this playfulness that can kind of come out,” Robins said of teens.

Robins and Callahan also serve as female faces for a program that, stereotypically, is considered to be male driven. Even among Callahan’s friends, her involvement has been met with skepticism.

However, she’s glad to change perceptions, one boat at a time.

“It’s not hard. Anyone can do it,” Callahan said.

“It feels good to make something. It’s not just a toy. It’s worth something to somebody.”


Sagal Abdirahman is a senior at St. Louis Park High School. Her story on Urban Boatbuilders is part of a package by 12 high school students who participated in ThreeSixty Journalism’s residential Intermediate Camp from June 15 to June 27.

Their stories are centered on youth organizations in the metro area that are cultivating the “next generation” of leaders. Click here to read stories from ThreeSixty’s summer camp series.