The Boat workshop

The Journey of a Wooden Boat

Penn State Altoona professors bring with Massachusetts-based boat-builders into the philosophy classroom.
By: Therese Boyd
Alix Dreder and Steve Denette in front of the boat they're building

Alix Dreder and Steve Denette

Credit: Therese Boyd

The journey of a wooden boat begins with a single step. Or, in this case, an idea, a "tickle in the back of my throat since I was a kid," as Steve Denette calls it. From childhood, he dreamed of building his own boat and now he and his friend Alix Kreder are working on doing just that in Massachusetts, a project known as From Acorn to Arabella: Journey of a Wooden Boat. Penn State Altoona's Associate Teaching Professor, Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies Samuel Findley describes their efforts: "Five years ago two friends decided to build a wooden boat and sail off into the sunset. As part of this—partly as a lark—they made YouTube videos" of the process. Much to the builders' surprise, "those videos became the center of a vibrant craftsman community."

How do boat-building and video-making fit into philosophy courses at Penn State Altoona? As smoothly as two pieces of wood can make a butt joint, it seems. Steve and Alix visited not only Findley's Philosophy 233 class, comprised mainly of engineering students, but also Assistant Professor of Philosophy Brian Onishi's Philosophy 13 class, which focuses on nature and the environment.

Findley discussed the ethics of design in technology with his class. He says, "One of the central questions for students considering STEM fields is are they being placed in places of moral hazard in new technology?" The Internet, of course, is a prime example. Acknowledging that students have a different view than his own, he posits, "Maybe I have an unfounded suspicion of the Internet. Maybe my students do not. Maybe they think if we could design faster computers, our lives could slide toward perfection."

He continues: "Is my position a fallacy? Is theirs? I'm hitting back at that pretty strongly but I'm also looking for ways to pose the question so that it's not necessarily easily answerable. There are all sorts of test cases about how bad the Internet is for children. There are also all sorts of test cases that the Internet is highly enabling to those who need it."

Findley invited Steve and Alix to come to Penn State Altoona to speak to his class about their experiences with boat-building and embracing technology while at the same time their final goal is to eschew it. The class began with an introduction and one of their videos. As a caveat, the boat builders acknowledged that they have now hired two people to help with the videos and merchandise so that they can focus their own attention on the boat—Alix rattled off the jobs outside of boat-building to keep the enterprise going: “storyboarding all the videos, shooting all the videos, editing all the videos, payroll, visiting classes, etc.”

For Onishi’s class, the attraction was on a more personal level. He says, “We need a new understanding of what the ‘good life’ could be and it seemed like that is exactly what Steve and Alix are trying to do, to make some new way of understanding life. We talked about our relationship to nature and to the environment and how we would flourish in an environmental crisis.” As part of that discussion, “we talked about how the boat builders are making some of their own materials that could be purchased but for a high cost and the difference between how we value things that we buy versus things that we make.”

While it wasn’t their goal, Findley says, “Steve and Alix made enough money from their videos to quit their day jobs,” certainly qualifying for the plus side of the Internet. In addition, “they accidentally built a community because of their videos.” The builders made a conscious effort to reject technology so they can work on the boat “as far from the modern world as they could get” and yet “now their product is the video.” Findley admits, “I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of the alienating of media technology but there are also times media technology brings together groups that would not have otherwise gotten together.”

Alix, Steve, and their crew work on the boat

Onishi is equally attracted to that part of the project: “So many of their videos are about collaboration. They called in people to help; others had food for them. The way that people gathered around this project was really interesting.” He noticed his students “were engaged and kind of excited about the project.” The boat builders showed his class how they want to “live a different kind of good life—not TV, video games, or phone.”

Public response to the videos and their project, Steve said, was very surprising. “We figured more or less they’d be saying ‘what are these two nutters doing?’ For us building the boat and being able to travel is such a crazy insane reward,” but they didn’t anticipate “how much our project has affected others’ lives. What we found is there are an insane amount of people all over the world who have a struggle—PTSD, blood cancer—we get messages from people who tell us, ‘I was on my fourth or fifth time watching your videos and I realized that you were out doing things and I was sitting in my house doing nothing.’ So he went out and traded his Jeep for a Chevelle and now he goes out in his garage and puts our videos on in the background so he doesn’t feel alone and works on his Chevelle.”

When a student asked how long it took the project “to be a big thing,” Steve responded, “A couple of years. We worked full-time jobs and worked on the boat. We looked like walking zombies. It very slowly, relentlessly, grew. The lead pour video, where we poured lead to make a ballast keel for the sailboat, was one of the big ones. That video kinda went nuts and helped catapult us.” Alix interjected emphatically to make it clear that they “don’t want to be a celebrity, no no no,” and Steve added, “but we get recognized in the bank.”

Findley notes that “one of the ways the Internet is notoriously bad is trolls. Comment sections are where humanity goes to die. There’s something dehumanizing about it, it’s inherently vicious.” One thing about the boat builders that attracted Findley, though, was that “they decided to engage with their trolls.” The lead pour video received the most negative responses. Instead of rising to the bait, Findley says, “they responded in a calm and rational manner.”

“We try not to take it [negative comments] too much to heart,” Alix said. Steve added, “These comments come from a place of ignorance. As Alix said, you take it with a grain of salt.” He listed a number of insults they’d received and then said, “90% of our comments are good. You kinda can’t let it bother you. Taking YouTube comments too seriously will drive you crazy.”

While they try not to let the comments get to them, the pair don’t ignore them all. Alix said, “We use negative comments to explain, ‘Well, actually ...,’ and Steve continued, “We don’t engage with trolls, the real ones, but if people give you the leeway to get in there and formulate a response, we do. So far a lot of people have reacted well. We try to moderate and keep people on track.”

The unlikely fame drew the attention of a reality TV filmmaker, Steve said. “A Discovery Channel person came around. They would turn it into a drama.” When a student asked why they weren’t interested in a television deal, he responded, “The mistakes we want to show are the ones where we learn something. So we feel like those avenues showing our learning processes are most helpful.” Alix added, “The project is not a moneymaker, that’s not the goal of the project. We have no sponsorships.” Companies that do approach them have to understand “we are not going to be beholden to you,” Steve said.

Steve and Alix do plan on sailing off into the sunset once Arabella is seaworthy. But first, they have to learn how to sail, Steve said: “We’ll learn from friends who are accomplished sailors.” Of course, they didn’t know how to build a boat when they started, either. But Steve is used to working with his hands: “I’m fifth generation on a farm. I grew up around it. The big leap was learning boat construction—the boat-specific stuff.” They did a lot of research both in print and online, “looking on the forums and figuring out who to listen to.”

Once construction is complete, they may make a film about the entire experience. No matter what they do, though, they are not concerned about being employable in the future. “The options are astounding,” Steve said. “We could show up in any boatyard: ‘I went in the woods, cut down the trees and built that. Any questions?’” Alix added, “knowing you can do something with your hands can go a long way.”