Back to School
A layoff from Wall Street can lead to new beginnings at an Arundel boatbuilding school.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Photograph courtesy of The Landing School
If the Great Recession had a face, it would be Matt Barton’s.
The twenty-five-year-old Cape Elizabeth native had done everything right — an economics degree from St. Lawrence University, a job in an investment banking office in Boston — and yet in late 2008 he found himself back at his parents’ house, unemployed.
Instead of scouring the “Help Wanted” ads, though, Barton took some time to ponder what he really wanted to do with his life. He found the answer at a thirty-two-year-old marine trades school nearby in Arundel.
“I’d always thought that economics was what I was supposed to do, and after doing that and then getting laid off, I felt like I had an opportunity to do what I wanted to do,” Barton says. “I’ve always been interested in art, and a kid from my high school had gone to the Landing School. So I decided to check it out.”
Today Barton is two-thirds of the way through an intensive ten-month yacht design program at the Arundel school, which offers five programs tailored to the marine industry: traditional wooden boatbuilding, composites, marine systems, wood-composite boatbuilding, and yacht design. After graduation in June he is confident he’ll be able to land a position at a yacht design firm, and with past placement rates as high as 94 percent (though Landing School President Barry Acker acknowledges that figure will undoubtedly drop somewhat this year, mirroring the downturn in the marine industry), Barton appears well on his way to starting a new life for himself.
He’s not alone. Last fall the Landing School welcomed its largest incoming class ever — eighty-five students, ranging in age from nineteen to sixty-three — with cutting-edge programs such as those teaching composites doubling their enrollment from the previous year. In September, the school will for the first time be offering a two-year associate’s degree, partnering with the University of New England to provide a complete, rounded degree program. Nowhere else in the world can students find the same concentration of talent, equipment, and training. Federal financial assistance, in the form of retraining money as well as special grants for veterans, has made a new career in the marine industry an option for an increasing number of Mainers and others worldwide who might not be able to pay the $34,000 cost of attendance on their own. Many students actually sign up for a second, different one-year program even before completing their original course, Acker says.
“The reason we’ve been successful for thirty-two years, and the reason we’re still here, is that we tell people what they’re going to get while they’re here, and when they leave here and go to work for Lyman Morse or Hodgdon they’re going to shine,” declares Acker, who over the past five years has led the Landing School through perhaps its greatest period of transformation and growth. “When students graduate on a Saturday in June, we want them to go to work on Monday, and for the most part that’s exactly what’s happening.”
To see the school today — a $5-million modern industrial campus shoe-horned onto five acres alongside a working cattle farm on one side and stately homes on the other — it’s hard to believe its origins can be traced back to a horse barn on this very spot. But in 1978, when John Burgess and Helen Tupper recognized that the marine industry needed more trained, talented workers, the only space available to them was their own tired blue barn here alongside the Kennebunk River.
“They shoveled manure one day and built boats the next,” laughs Acker. After just one year and eight students the couple added yacht design to their curriculum, with the other three programs joining the school’s offerings in the past ten years or so. In 2002 a new boatbuilding shop was built on the campus, and in 2007 a $2-million, twenty thousand-square-foot modern facility finally replaced the blue barn that had been used by those first students. The school hopes to capitalize on its talented faculty and specialized equipment — a single machine that tests shear strength cost more than fifty thousand dollars — and become a testing center for Maine boatbuilders, Acker says.
More important than the Landing School’s impressive facilities, however, has been its ability to maintain its traditional roots — four plank-on-frame Maine peapods are being built by students here this year for Downeast Peapods — while adjusting to the needs of a rapidly evolving marine industry. The composites program, which teaches students how to work with high-tech materials like carbon fiber, has proven particularly useful at putting the Maine school on the radar of some of the nation’s top yacht builders in recent years.
“Years ago, my concern was that someone who came out of the Landing School knew how to sharpen woodworking tools well, but they didn’t know how to be effective with modern materials,” says Mark Lindsay, co-owner of Boston BoatWorks, which builds up to twenty-five luxury, production powerboats each year, all of them made out of composite materials. “That’s not the case any more. They’ve attracted teachers who really understand the industry. Someone who has gone to the Landing School has shown that they are serious enough about their profession that they have gone to school to learn how to do it correctly.”
Wendy West is one such person. She, like Barton, was laid off recently from her job as an editor at a professional journal in Yarmouth. Taking stock of her life and interests, she followed a youthful passion for sailing back to the Landing School. “I’d been living in the cubicle world for a while, and I wanted something else,” West says. “I didn’t have the confidence to go into a boatshop and say, ‘Hey, hire me.’ ” When she completes the wooden boatbuilding course later this year, West hopes to join a nonprofit like the Compass Project in Portland, which teaches children to build wooden rowboats, to help others discover the joys of working with wood.
When it comes to attracting new students, the Landing School’s location in southern Maine is often an asset, according to Nicole Jacques, the school’s marketing director. “Students know about Maine’s boatbuilding history, and they see it as coming to mecca,” she says. While the school has struggled to attract women — it has just three this year — its one-of-a-kind offerings this year alone have lured students from Turkey, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. The industry, too, recognizes the distinctly Maine values that the school is teaching. “It’s great to have people whose interest is to do a beautiful job, and that is certainly a Maine tradition,” says Boston BoatWorks’ Mark Lindsay, adding that he has hired more than twenty Landing School graduates over the years.
But not everyone who comes to the Landing School is looking for a career. Gary Onik, a fifty-seven-year-old cancer surgeon and researcher, enrolled in the Arundel school’s systems program with his son as a way for the two of them to prepare for a world cruise on their new sailboat. “We’d love to be a positive thing in the cruising community, and to represent the Landing School,” Onik remarks. In addition to learning how to replace a diesel fuel injector and the difference between ohms and amps, the Orlando, Florida, resident says he and his son have developed a new bond in Maine. “We’ve flunked tests together,” he laughs, adding that the program is as challenging as anything he’s experienced since medical school. (Students in the yacht design program, the school’s most academically challenging, routinely put in fourteen-hour days, and the other programs are only slightly less demanding.) But the challenge is worth it, Onik says. “I get to see my son in a way that not many dads get to. We’re equal here.”
Acker says whether someone is an older student like Onik or a twenty-year-old with the basic aspirations of Brian Porter — “I’ve always heard that there’s money in fixing boats, and I want to make a lot of money,” says the marine systems student, matter-of-factly — Landing School students are all united in their love of boats and dedication to craftsmanship. And that is something in demand even during the deepest economic recession, Acker says. “I’ve had four or five calls over the last month from marinas and builders looking for people,” he says. “There are still jobs out there, but it’s happening very quietly.” By representing the school at trade shows and job fairs across the country, Acker is able to network with leading boatbuilders and designers. In many cases, he identifies qualified matches even before a student has completed the program.
For some students attending the Landing School, however, the decision to head back to school has less to do with networking and placement rates than it does about following your bliss. For people like Orin Niskin, a twenty-six-year-old from Miami who served as a nuclear electrician on an aircraft carrier in the navy until 2008, deciding to start over came down to one simple realization. “You only have one life,” he declares.
Landing School, 286 River Road, Arundel, ME, 04046, 207-985-7976, www.landingschool.edu
- By: Joshua F. Moore