- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2001

During World War II, small Navy boats dubbed "whaleboats," for their whale-hunting predecessors from New England, helped the Allies move troops to and from massive battleships onto shore.

The 25-man whaleboats aren´t used much anymore. They have been replaced by inflatable versions that are swifter and can be deflated at a moment´s notice.

But one modern whaleboat is having an impact on the lives of three District young people, members of Covenant House Washington´s apprentice program. Covenant House Washington helps young people about age 16 to 21 in Anacostia and Congress Heights, giving them aid and advice on unemployment, education, teen parenting and health at its community service center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

A program created by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation is enabling the apprentices — Cleman Sweptson, Charity Walker and Delaney Booker — to craft a full-size replica of a Navy motor whaleboat at the Navy Yard in Southeast.

The work isn´t glamorous. Sawdust covers the apprentices´ shoes and at times sprinkles across their faces as they make the wooden pieces do their bidding.

Darryl McDaniel, a boat-building instructor with the foundation, says the work involves more than just sanding wood. It´s meant to build up the young people´s pride in what they have accomplished.

"They take ownership for what they´ve done, rather than being looked upon as a failure," Mr. McDaniel says. "They can put their names on it and say they´ve done it."

Once completed, the full-size, 26-foot replica will serve as a floating educational vessel, to be used by local preservation and conservation groups. The boat will float along the Anacostia River near the Navy Yard, which is lending space for the boat construction.

"People are gonna be in awe" of the final product, Mr. McDaniel promises. The finished boat should be seaworthy by August or September.

For the next three months, the neophyte shipbuilders will be sanding, cutting and shaping the various boat segments. The volunteers even helped chop down the white oak tree used to supply some of the material.

Rather than enlist a team of workers, the small-scale project features mainly the three apprentices, aided by four part-time volunteers.

Michael Shannon, a job developer with Covenant House Washington, says the intimate group allows for more one-on-one mentoring, which creates a bond between the young workers and the veteran volunteers.

"You can get lost on a big project," Mr. Shannon says. "Here, it´s a caring sort of relationship."

He says his group ran a pilot program last year involving construction work, and as a result, most of those involved ended up joining construction unions.

"There´s a lot of opportunity in the construction industry," he says.

Mr. McDaniel says he began working with the project "just to see kids light up."

"I thought it´d be exciting, and it hasn´t failed me yet," says Mr. McDaniel, who retired from the Navy after 16 years serving as a boatswain mate, a role that he says found him performing every odd job on the ship.

"They really enjoy coming here. It´s something different," he says.

For Mr. Sweptson, 22, the whaleboat undertaking is his second boat-building project for Covenant House.

"I´d never built a boat before," Mr. Sweptson says between breaks sanding a length of wood. Now he is lending his budding woodworking skills to the whaleboat. He says the work entails delicate manipulation of the wood to make sure the various pieces fit.

"I´m looking forward to seeing it when it´s done," Mr. Sweptson says. "That´s the most exciting part."

The project began last month with the Covenant House apprentices traveling to Philadelphia to retrieve a similar, aged boat from the late 1800s from the Independence Seaport Museum.

The workers took the rickety boat apart with the help of a chain saw in order to mimic its parts to create a dutiful duplicate.

Whaleboats may look simple in their design, but it takes careful measurements, a fair knowledge of math and the ability to steam portions of wood in order to bend and twist them into place to make it all float.

The project, though, is well within the reach of the capable young residents.

"If you can draw it, you can build it," Mr. McDaniel says.

That´s his philosophy, and the apprentices are proving it prophetic.

An existing whaleboat is in the Navy Museum´s annex building on the grounds of the Navy Yard, but it is only for display.

The whaleboats still enjoy limited use in the Navy, Mr. McDaniel says.

Small boats have always been a part of the Navy´s repertoire, according to the Navy Museum´s Sheila Brennan.

Immense craft, such as battleships and aircraft carriers, can´t navigate shallow waters to drop off sailors or servicemen, so smaller boats like the whaleboats must be used.

During World War II and the Korean War, whaleboats brought sailors to the shore for days off, transported prisoners of war from land to ships and rescued injured Allied troops.

In Korea, American whaleboats also stopped supplies and food from getting to the enemy. Whaleboat sailors often traveled by night to infiltrate an enemy camp.

Bert Printz, who is volunteering his time to help the project, says boat building offers the Covenant House apprentices a unique experience.

"This is quite foreign to them. A lot haven´t worked with their hands before," says Mr. Printz, a veteran boat builder. "After they see a boat come together, they´re impressed with what they can do and how it´s used."

The instruction also includes lessons on skills beyond woodworking.

"We spend a lot of time on mathematics and terminology," Mr. Printz says. "We´re trying to give them practical information along with how to use tools properly."

The public will be able to watch the boat´s construction and chat with the boat builders throughout the summer from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Navy Yard, Ninth and M streets SE.

Students and teachers seeking to glean educational material from the project can find online learning materials at www.capaccess.org/snt/alexsea/ .

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