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Yacht Restoration

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Any boatyard can refurbish an elderly vessel, but where do old yachts get new lives using traditional techniques? The answer is the Newport, Rhode Island-based International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS), a non-profit organization that’s devoted to teaching boatbuilding and boat preservation the way it was once done. Indeed, IYRS students and faculty focus solely on bringing back to life historical boats, which it defines as wooden plank-on-frame boats.

Thanks to its two-year Boatbuilding and Restoration program, students with no knowledge of boats or boatbuilding can graduate with enough expertise to immediately find positions in boatbuilding and restoration, or even start their own boatbuilding company, as did the owners of East Passage Boatwrights in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Students begin by restoring 12-foot Beetle Cats, a traditional wooden sailboat with a single mast, and typically end their program working on much larger and often famous, rare yachts, like Coronet, a 131-foot schooner that is currently being restored at the facility.

IYRS receives a steady supply of Beetle cats, since its teaching regimen is well known in the catboat community, according to IYRS program director Clark Poston. “These small boats are not necessarily simple to restore, but they include all the elements students are expected to master as they become trained in plank-on-frame construction,” he says. “As first-year students prepare each Beetle cat to return to the water, they gain skill in backbone construction, steam-bending frames, planking, spar making, and finish work.” And when the Beetles are fully restored, they are put up for sale for around $14,000, to help the school offset expenses. This reflects the IYRS’ tenet that historic boats should be restored so that they can be returned to water for a second life.

In their second year, students step up from the Beetles to larger projects and from two-person teams to becoming members of larger working groups. (Teamwork is a crucial part of IYRS coursework.) These project boats are carefully selected so that the completion of each coincides as much as possible with graduation for the students, although there are exceptions like Coronet. Whether they end up working on a classic 16-foot Herreshoff 12.5 or the famous 1924 Six Meter Madcap, which a team restored in time for the 2009 International Six Metre World Cup in Newport, second-year students have a very good chance of working on a truly historical vessel. Another recent class restored the 35-foot motor launch Corsair, which was originally launched in 1939 for yachtsman and financier J.P. Morgan and was re-launched for their graduation earlier this year. In 2010, second-year projects will include Herreshoff 12.5 sailing dinghies and a 1941 20-foot GarWood Vacationer motorboat.

In some instances, students who have completed their coursework have the opportunity to do post-graduate work. When the IYRS acquired Coronet in 1995, graduates participated in the initial phases of restoration. In 2006 ownership of the yacht was formally transferred over to a separate corporation, Coronet Restoration Partners, and many students the opportunity to work as summer interns. The company also plans to hire graduates in the future.

Each year IYRS celebrates Launch Day in late May or early June, which doubles as its graduation ceremony. Over the years this has become a community event attended by students, alumni, and Newport citizens. Students launch their project boats and get the first opportunity to sea-trial them.

Although the recession has hit the boating industry hard, the school reports that it had one of its strongest Marine Industry Career Days in February 2009. The event drew 200 people, a 60-percent increase over attendance the previous year, attracting a wide variety of students—computer professionals, recent high-school graduates, and more—who were looking for a new career or a career change. Class sizes remained strong through 2007 and 2008, although Spring 2009 grads did report having a harder time finding jobs. IYRS public relations manager Cynthia Goss says, “Since the service side of the business has remained strong, grads from our Marine Systems program, which is based at a satellite locale in Bristol where students learn to install, maintain, and troubleshoot the systems used on classic and modern sail and power boats, did well on finding jobs.”

But whether IYRS students are looking for skills to apply to old or new boats, they share a common trait: a love of old, classic vessels and the desire to see them find a new life.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.