In the crisp air of a September afternoon, 15-year-old Christian Shackel and his father, Matt, can easily pick up and flip the wooden skeleton in their Aquebogue front yard. But soon enough, once Christian adds six more sheets worth of plywood, fiberglass and an engine, the 18-foot handmade work skiff won’t be quite as easy to lift.
“I’m not worried about that yet,” he said, looking at the boat-in-progress with a smirk on his face.
One way or another, Christian is bound to figure it out. In fact, the entire project of building a wooden boat has consisted of figuring it out.
When he started in late August, Christian figured he’d be done by the time he started his sophomore year at Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School in Riverhead, so he’s making time in the afternoon to work. His garage workshop proved too small to fit all 18 feet of the boat, so he leaves it in the front yard. He needed an engine, so he “inherited” one from a neighbor’s yard sale.
On top of that, Christian had never built a boat before. He always had an interest in working with his hands and became serious about woodworking about three years ago. Now, he plans to pursue carpentry or construction as a career.
“It’s pretty cool to see what nothing can turn into,” he said.
But the boat is Christian’s first big project — far bigger than the cutting boards and vases he previously made.
“It’ll be awesome when it floats,” he said with a laugh. “When it floats, I’ll be happy. It’ll be another one of those ‘I hope this works’ moments.”
Christian’s main goal is to have a work skiff he can use for clamming. An adult neighbor of his grows oysters at Cornell Cooperative Extension and used similar boats. Once construction stopped, the neighbor brought the blueprints to Christian with an idea: to build their own.
“He does have a boat, but it’s harder to get into shallow spots,” Christian said. “This thing draws only a few inches of water, so we can get in really close.”
They struck a deal: The neighbor would pay for all the materials and Christian would put in the time and energy necessary to build the boat from a blueprint. So far, he’s clocked 27 hours, and he imagines he can finish it in the coming weeks.
“He’s got a skill that I don’t have,” Mr. Shackel said of his son. “He really got it from his grandfathers on both sides. I guess it skipped a generation with me.”
Christian’s project has attracted the attention — and assistance — of neighbors. Some have helped him with heavy lifting; others have donated certain pieces of wood, such as the thicker bulkhead.
“I can get the neighborhood together when I need help,” Christian said.
And even those who don’t help Christian have demonstrated deep curiosity about his project.
“I came out to my front lawn one time and there were 12 people here,” Mr. Shackel said. “I likened it to ‘Planet of the Apes,’ when they saw the monolith: all walking around, trying to see what it is.”
Since Christian has a hobby that is so creative and constructive, his father said he’s happy to help with finances by purchasing tools or materials for other projects.
“I’m very proud — he’s doing something very productive,” Mr. Shackel said. “It’s something I gladly invest in when he needs tools or machinery. It’s not like video games and all that. This is a lifelong skill. There are not too many 15-year-old kids that can do this.”
Photo Caption: Christian Shackel of Aquebogue has spent the past few weeks constructing an 18-foot wooden boat he plans to use for clamming. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)