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Bronx Students Build a 29-Foot, Seaworthy Whaleboat

 Students at Rocking the Boat in Hunts Point spent one-and-a-half years building the vessel on commission for a museum.
A Bronx Whaleboat
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HUNTS POINT — As far as anyone knows, there are no whales in the Bronx River.

And yet, propped up inside a cheery riverside workshop in industrial Hunts Point, there lies a nearly complete, 29-foot-long wooden whaleboat.

Stranger still is that the seaworthy vessel, crafted to the exact specifications set by a major maritime museum, was constructed — keel, garboard, bilge and all — by Bronx high school and college students.

“My teachers are like, ‘Wow, a 17-year-old girl from The Bronx is building a boat from the 19th century?’” said Natividad Mercado-Lopez, a junior at Hyde Leadership Charter School. “‘Amazing!’”

Roughly 25 apprentices at Rocking the Boat, a nonprofit youth center that teaches boat building and sailing, have labored on the vessel since construction began more than a year-and-a-half ago.

Funded by Peter Kellogg, a private donor, and commissioned by Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum, the completed boat will be hoisted up and stored inside the museum’s historic Charles W. Morgan — a 114-foot-long, 172-year-old vessel considered the oldest surviving wooden whaling ship.

The students' boat, which cost about $125,000 to build, had to be assembled precisely according to a blueprint provided by the museum in order to match several other whaleboats that will also go inside the Morgan.

It is the largest and most complex construction project that Rocking the Boat has ever undertaken.

Nevertheless, the staff entrusted the students with the bulk of the work.

“The kids were involved in every last step of it,” said Adam Green, who founded the organization in 1996 and is its executive director.

Students voluntarily attend programs at the center at 812 Edgewater Rd. after school and over the summer.

High school underclassmen learn how to build wooden boats from scratch or how to row and sail them.

Select upperclassmen enter an apprenticeship program where they are paid to build new boats on commission or restore old ones, or to conduct river-based research and restoration projects on contract with various agencies.

Alumni now in college can stay on as paid program assistants.

"You do real work that has some external impact," Green said. "We’re not just doing it for fun."

The teens in the boatbuilding apprenticeship who choose to spend their afternoons bending, banging and sanding wooden planks seem driven by more than the $7.25 an hour they earn.

For instance, Natividad, who until recently played school softball, had something to prove.

“I’m like, ‘You know, why not show these guys that girls can build stuff and use tools?’” she said.

Basilous Falconer, 21, a CUNY student who earns $10 an hour as a program assistant, first joined the boatbuilding program years ago because it reminded him of his childhood in Jamaica.

“We tried to make boats and rafts,” he explained. “They usually sank.”

Sekou Kromah, 18, a senior at Bronx International High School, stepped into his first boat through a Rocking the Boat summer program shortly after he arrived in the U.S. from Guinea four years ago.

Soon after, he enrolled in the boatbuilding program.

He did so out of necessity — he could communicate with a staffer there who spoke French, while picking up English from his peers — but also because he wanted to retain the construction skills he’d honed building houses in Africa and, especially, to make friends.

“One thing that keeps me coming is the people,” Sekou explained. “They make me forget what’s going on at home or arguments at school — you forget about all that.”

The whaleboat is to be launched at a celebration on June 1, after which is will be shipped to Connecticut.

To finish on time, the nine apprentices working on the vessel this semester have been visiting the center several days a week lately — more than the two for which they’re paid.

Soon, the young builders will have transformed a pile of oak and cedar boards into something else entirely.

“You start with nothing,” said Sekou. “Then, day after day, month after month, you start to see a boat and you can’t believe it.”