- Associated Press - Saturday, October 10, 2015

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Retired Marine Tom Brandl stood on the shore of the Elizabeth River rallying his troops.

“You don’t have to worry,” he said to the adolescents clad in flip-flops and life vests that were growing sticky in the late summer heat.

A few looked doubtful. They’d spent the summer learning about power drills, Japanese saws and chisels - tools that helped them create the two polished skiffs before them.

“You’ve done a great job in building these,” Brandl said.

Most of the kids had never held a nail before June.



Jerrae Loyd and his sister Breyana stood next to the red-trimmed boat they had worked on. Jerrae, 12, shot his arm in the air when Brandl asked who wanted to go in first.

Jerrae plopped down on one seat as Brandl faced him. Hands shoved them into the shallow waves as Jerrae took the oars and Brandl started talking him through the basics of rowing.

He looked at Brandl for reassurance. Brandl knew what was going to happen next.

Brandl retired as a Marine Corps colonel in 2008 after 29 years of stellar service. He assumed he’d settle into a laid-back life afterward. But he took a class and felt the need to answer another call of duty.

He’d grown up on the Jersey Shore, always loved boats, and figured out a few years ago that he could reach kids by teaching them to build the vessels. They could learn how to apply geometry, physics and chemistry - lessons that could help them in school. But Brandl, and the old salt he eventually partnered with, also knew it could teach them skills that couldn’t be measured: discipline, goal-building, teamwork and confidence.

In 2014, he formed the nonprofit Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop with the line behind it in quotation marks: Life Skills Through Boatbuilding.

“I love working with wood, I love boats, and I love helping kids,” Brandl said. “This lets me do all three of those things.”

The group welcomed its first students this summer, about 14 students recruited through the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. They spent two hours, two days a week building four, 12-foot Bevin’s skiffs - solid, basic boats for beginners.

Ideally, they would’ve had more than a collective 28 hours.

Technically, it took longer. Adult volunteers came in before the students, worked with them and stayed after to prep the boats for the next task when the students returned.

It has taken more work to pull the program together. The city’s Recreation, Parks and Open Space department and NRHA worked to get the warehouse space, and Brandl solicited donations and sponsorships to get the initial funding. A good chunk of the money, however, has come out of The National Bank of Brandl’s Hip Pocket. He pulls no salary. Last year, he resigned from a job as a defense analyst to commit to his nonprofit full time. He plans to continue Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop throughout the school year with an after-school program.

“Making this work is my life,” he said.

He had moments of confirmation this summer, including one morning when he and the kids could not figure out why a side panel would not line up with the transom, or back of the boat.

Brandl kept adjusting the boat’s position until one of the girls stopped him.

“Mr. Tom, you keep moving the saw horse, but that’s not raising it. It’s lowering it because the bottom is curved.”

She was using spatial reasoning and problem-solving.

“It thrilled me to no end,” Brandl said.

Brandl got the idea for the program after he took a boat-building class in Maine and heard of a successful “Rocking the Boat” group in New York. There, a man worked with children from one of the poorest congressional districts in the country to build boats and taught them how to row on the Bronx River.

The students then started planting oyster reefs and learning how to test the river’s water quality. Students who couldn’t see beyond tomorrow were now going to college to study biology and ecology.

Brandl assumed that Hampton Roads and its massive port and maritime history would have a similar program. He returned from the class looking to volunteer for it.

“I couldn’t find a thing,” he said.

In his search, he came across Joseph Filipowski, a well-known maritime raconteur and wooden boat builder, who often silenced his chattering band of teens this summer with a rousing “Ladies and gentlemen, waterfront characters, one and all!”

Filipowski met Brandl at the Marine’s Virginia Beach home. Filipowski called the meeting “magical.”

He walked into Brandl’s garage and saw the shell of an 1820 whitehall boat, which Brandl was building in the way of the old sea dogs: steam-bent planks, copper rivets and with a transom of gorgeous African mahogany.

Brandl had him at hello.

Filipowski, like Brandl, was raised on the water. He knew the deep love of moving with the waves and inhaling salt-tinged air. Filipowski, who has worked in similar programs before, wanted the kids to feel the pride of building something.

“Once they get in the boats they realize, ‘I’m moving on my own power, in something I made myself,’ ” he said. “That’s what Tom and I are attempting to do is strike that fire, and have them enjoy rowing and sailing in beautiful boats that they built.”

The two got volunteers to help them transform a vacant room off Ballentine Boulevard in Norfolk. They covered concrete floors with wooden planks that would muffle the sound when the students would inevitably drop their tools. They put up pegboards to cover the cinderblock walls and hold safety goggles. The students arrived in mid-June. Most didn’t even know how to hold a hammer. By July, the room filled with the brrrrrr of table saws, even though a few kids peeked at their phones when they weren’t cutting lumber.

The teens learned about risers and keels, and how compound angles worked in the building of boats.

“It’s mathematics and geometry and science,” Fililpowsky told four students huddled around the hull of one skiff. “It might look simple like digging a ditch, but there’s science to it.”

By late August, Breyana Loyd, 15, held a hammer as she bent over her boat and whacked away to stabilize a riser that would hold the seat.

“Awesome!” Brandl said, “That’s some of the best hammering I’ve seen!”

Breyana glanced up and nodded with a look that said, “I know.”

She was one who had never handled a hammer until the class. While other students have missed a class, she and her brother did not.

“I’ve learned teamwork and creativity,” she said during a break, “Mr. Tom, he makes it fun for us.”

Jerrae, a student at Lake Taylor Middle School, did not want to come to the program but followed his sister. Then he came because he wanted to.

“It’s fun!” he said. “We get to use power tools and we get to actually build a boat!

“A lot of kids don’t get to do that.”

On a Tuesday in late August, the class met at the river’s edge behind the Grandy Village Learning Center.

Brandl coached Jerrae as the teen negotiated the oars on each side of the boat. Jerrae chopped the water, then did as Brandl said and leaned back, pulled, and propelled the boat forward.

Then it happened. Brandl had felt that moment decades ago when he first learned to row and felt that surge of accomplishment.

Jerrae smiled shyly, proud of himself. Jerrae rowed the boat about 50 feet from the shore. Brandl coached him to hold one oar aloft and use the other to turn the boat around and back to the shore.

An hour later, the eight students had taken a turn rowing the boats, and half of the children were clamoring to get on the power boat a volunteer was idling in case he needed to rescue someone from the river.

Brandl and Filipowski looked out on the river. Jerrae was back in his skiff, sweating and smiling, rowing by himself in the summer sun.

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com

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