Across sparkling Newport Harbor from the Museum of Yachting is its partner institution, the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS). One preserves yachts and the lore of sailing, and the other preserves the skills of the shipwright.
The IYRS has campuses in both Newport and Bristol, Rhode Island, and has three accredited schools: the School of Boatbuilding & Restoration, the School of Marine Systems, and the School of Composites Technology. The Marine Systems and Composite Technology programs are located at the Bristol location, while the Boatbuilding and Restoration program is situated on Thames Street on Newport’s waterfront.
Restoration Hall, a four-story brick building, is home to the Boatbuilding & Restoration program’s offices and the shop floor—the heart of the school’s activities where the students learn the practical, hands-on skills of the shipwright. The boat restoration program is a 20-month curriculum, and the school welcomes visitors to watch apprentice boatbuilders as they give new life to old boats. On the day I visited, 12 boats were in various stages of restoration.
Seven of those vessels were Beetle Cats, the restoration project that all first-year students undertake. The Beetle Cat is a 12-foot sailboat designed in Massachusetts in 1920; since then, more than 4,000 have been built. Its simple design and the availability of many derelict craft make it a perfect project for students.
From the visitors’ balcony on the second floor, I could easily see the students at work, the boats on the floor, and the profusion of the tools and equipment. The pleasant scent of freshly cut wood drifted up to the balcony, and I heard the rasp of a saw and the whir of an electric drill.
Each Beetle Cat I saw below me had used up eight of its nine lives. They had come to the school as donations, some in such poor condition that only the hardware could be salvaged for use in the restoration. Rebuilding these boats gives the IYRS students the experience of persuading wood to take a desired shape, stay obediently in place, and remain watertight.
The Cats were mounted bottom-side up on builder’s jigs, and they bristled with so many clamps that they resembled porcupines. Guided by master shipwrights, the students hovered over them, measuring, sawing, planing, drilling, fastening, and measuring again. They worked in teams of two, often turning from their boat to an adjacent plywood table loaded with saws, planes, screwdrivers, drills and bits, clamps, hammers, battery packs, and boxes of screws.
The battery-powered drill appeared to be their tool of choice; every student used one sooner or later. The most numerous tool, however, was the clamp; there were dozens on each Beetle Cat, and hundreds more, large and small, waited on multiple racks. There was also a large steam box students could use to soften and bend wood.
The seven Beetle Cats were little more than half of the restorations in progress. Sharing the shop floor were five other small craft: two other small sailboats, the Corsair (a 35-foot Herreshoff motor launch built in 1939), a jolly boat, and a completed Beetle Cat that served as the students’ model.
After leaving Restoration Hall, I walked behind the school and saw the Coronet, a 133-foot schooner built in 1885 and advertised as “the only grand yacht to survive from the Gilded Age.” Her restoration, which is not an IYRS project, began in 2006 and continues to the present. She is berthed in a very big shed that is open for visiting.
On my way back to the car, I saw proof of the IYRS’s artistry: A trim Beetle Cat with a blue hull floated pertly at the pier, waiting for a sailor to bend on a sail and take her back to sea.
The International Yacht Restoration School
449 Thames Street, Newport, RI 02840
School of Boatbuilding & Restoration