Applied physics class launches handcrafted wooden solar boat

Orcas high school teacher Brett McFarland’s applied physics class launched their 25-foot, handcrafted traditional wooden “umiak” at Crescent Beach this week.

To the students’ amazement, the bark actually floated.

“Our fingers were dying from lashing all those ribs,” said Cameron Schuh of the over 1,000 lashings of tarred seine twine they knotted to hold the craft’s ribs in position. Ashley Janssen described how the students had to stand, nearly touching their toes, to fasten each lashing.

Power tools were tauntingly off-limits as the class spent hundreds of hours painstakingly cutting, scraping and sanding each small section of the boat. They learned how to sharpen chisels, drawknives and hand plane blades. They worked with crooked knives from Waldron’s North Bay Forge, block planes and Japanese crosscut saws.

“I really learned how to sharpen just about anything,” said Lee Gibbons.

The 18 students carved oars out of solid blocks of wood, sewing leather around each handle. They steamed the ribs to soften them, then curved them into shape. They stretched nylon taught around the wooden frame and slathered it with a two part urethane to make it watertight. April Hofmann said cutting out and piecing the boat’s floorboards was like working a jigsaw puzzle.

Adults in the community lent their skills: Jim Wester of North Bay Forge worked with the students on sharpening and using edge tools. Blacksmith Jorgen Harle helped with coating the skin, while Paul Lindersmith and Walter Henderson helped with wood carving. Kathi Anderson donated most of the wood for oars and the bike trailer used for transport.

Marilyn Storey’s 5th graders joined in the fun, helping to test glues for water solubility before McFarland selected the strongest glue for use in the oars and laminated keel and stern.

When the boat was completed, the students worked with John Mottl of Rainshadow Solar and Jason Lerner of Waldron Power and Light devise a solar system to power it.

“We figured it would take 13 hours to charge on a sunny day… so, it’s kind of a solar boat,” Rhys Thompson commented.

The project was made possible by a $10,000 Toyota Tapestry grant received last March. Orcas was one of only 10 schools in the nation selected.

The students used the school’s video equipment to document the construction, creating a video that was showed at a school assembly along with the finished craft.