It’s hard to picture today, as pleasure craft unhurriedly glide down the Potomac River, but by the 1790s, Alexandria, Virginia, reigned as one of the nation’s largest port cities. There, tall ships from the Iberian Peninsula, Great Britain, and the West Indies brought precious cargo, like molasses and rum, to the fledgling republic and loaded up in return wheat, rye, flour, and corn. To support its busy wharf, Alexandria became a center for wooden shipbuilding, an industry that thrived for the next hundred years. Today that past may seem relegated to a lone commemorative plaque on a pedestrian path along the city’s harbor. Unless, that is, your eye happens to drift to a curious red-timbered building floating on Old Town Alexandria’s waterfront, home base for a rare and unlikely community of up-and-coming wooden shipwrights.
At the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, a nonprofit housed in the buoyant McIlhenny Seaport Center, adrift young adults, aged seventeen to twenty-three, learn the age-old craft of wooden boat construction from volunteer and paid sailors and woodworkers. Together, they plan, cut, sand, frame, epoxy, and paint vessels such as Potomac River dories, from which oystermen tonged after the Civil War, filling their large V-shaped bottoms with bivalves, and Herreshoff 12½ sailboats, small wonders originally designed in 1914 by the American naval architect Nathanael Greene Herreshoff.
While doing so, they also gain soft skills, such as problem-solving and self-sufficiency, often transforming their lives in the process. “My graduation year was supposed to be 2021,” relates Zaria Eubanks, a nineteen-year-old Alexandria native and apprentice. “But I didn’t have enough credits to graduate.” Like so many students during the pandemic, she dropped out. “I didn’t have any structure. I was just doing my own thing. Smoking weed, getting into trouble. I didn’t really have a plan.” That summer, her high school counselor tracked Eubanks down and told her about Alexandria Seaport’s program. “I thought it was a scam,” she says, but she began to see things differently after the first few weeks of learning carpentry from nine to five, Monday through Friday, while getting paid fourteen dollars an hour. “It was such a welcoming environment,” she recalls.
A little more than a year into her apprenticeship, Eubanks hasn’t just learned how to sand the hulls of boats like the Chesapeake crab skiff, a shallow vessel the apprentices are currently shaping out of Douglas fir, mahogany, white oak, and sassafras, historically used for catching soft-shells. She’s also earned her driver’s license, passed her GED test, and enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College, milestones she still can’t quite believe: “If I hadn’t come here? I’d be doing nothing.”
In her fifteen years with the program, as chief fundraiser and now executive director, Kathy Seifert has watched apprentices, and in turn the program’s focus, evolve. “When I started, almost all of our apprentices were young men—mainly gang members,” she says. Today, in the wake of pandemic-induced isolation and social anxiety, Seifert has watched as the dropout rate, mental health issues, and drug use have spiked. Recently, she accepted three men into the program straight from the hospital with gunshot wounds. She’s also taken several people recovering from addictions to opiates and alcohol, and she gets calls daily from homeless teens looking to enroll.
Of course, the program’s staffers aren’t miracle workers. Sometimes the traumas in the apprentices’ lives run too deep to heal from days of sailing, learning to use hand planes, or catching up on missed high school credits, and they wash out. “I just had to let one young man go because his anger issues threatened other apprentices,” Seifert says. “But I hope three months from now, he’ll come back.”
For others, such as Patrick Klempner, the foundation serves as a welcome anchor during a stormy season. When the pandemic hit, the now twenty-three-year-old was in the middle of transferring from Texas A&M to James Madison University. But faced with virtual classes, he decided to move home to Alexandria. There, old friends and their bad influences spurred him to reignite his drug addiction. One night, a police officer pulled Klempner over and found half a pill on him. His parents decided to let him stay in jail a few days to do some soul-searching. If their son wanted their help, he’d have to do it on their terms, which meant a recovery program and enrollment in Alexandria Seaport.
“I’ve been sober now for nine months,” he says, beaming while displaying a wooden box he constructed as part of the Alexandria Seaport curriculum. “The structure here has helped me rebuild good habits. Honestly, I’ve been on and off drugs since high school, and I’m finally at a point where I’m happy being sober. This is the best time I’ve had in my life.”
Staying on course after graduation from the program is the next hurdle. About 70 percent of the time, the program works. Graduates go on to find other meaningful work or continue their education or apply the time-tested skills of the shipbuilding trade—making blueprints, building foundations, rejiggering as necessary—to the real world. And when that happens, well, it echoes what the author and expert sailor John Rousmaniere once wrote: “The goal is not to sail the boat, but rather to help the boat sail herself.”