OIHS students learn physics by building a boat

The Orcas Island High School's boat building class is in the final stages of its vessel construction.

The Orcas Island High School’s boat building class is in the final stages of its vessel construction.

Brett McFarland’s students have learned about all the particulars involved in building a boat, and are now in the process of fabricating the oar-powered, wood and waterproof fabric vessel. The class used applied physics to draw the boat schematics, and to assemble the frame.

“The class is a mix of applied geometry (in 3D), engineering, physic and craftsmanship,” said McFarland. “We call it ‘applied physics.'”

The style of boat is a umiak, used by Yupik and Inuit nations in coastal areas. Historically the fabric stretched across the frame were treated animal hides.

“It’s a very organic shape,” said McFarland. “We’re not trying to replicate anything.”

According to McFarland, during the past fall, the class, funded by a grant from Orcas Island Education Foundation, began the course by studying lumber native to Orcas Island.

The students tested the strength of the trees and their density. Of the variety of trees available on Orcas, the class discovered that Red Cedar had the best strength to weight ratio. The students were able to increase the strength 40 percent by laminating, and still keep the weight below the next best available wood, Douglas Fir. The students also used some yellow cedar in the construction, although it is not native to the island.

Community members have helped the students along the way. Kaj Enderlein milled the lumber for the boat the same day the students decided on the wood. After it was milled, the students visited local woodworkers Walter Henderson and Aleph Geddis to see some of their cedar projects.

“Every part of the boat has been a bit of an engineering and design challenge and many parts are made of laminated cedar to increase strength while reducing weight,” said McFarland. “Something that is important with human-powered craft.”

Once the boat has been completed, McFarland hopes to either auction it off, or use it to start a saltwater rowing team. He also is looking forward to the next school year’s applied physics course, hoping to get a grant from OIEF to build a tiny house.