At GreenFleet, "We're not just building boats; we're building kids"

By Lauren Daley
NEW BEDFORD – “Just like that. Watch your hands,” the boat-builder tells the boy.
Theirs is the age-old relationship of master and apprentice.
The boy is chiseling a notch into a wooden mold. The notch will receive the keelson – a main support beam of the 18′ sharpie skiff.
“Make sure you’re lined up just right,” the man says. “What can you use to draw a line?”
The boy thinks. “A square?”
“That’s right. Go get it.”
It feels like a scene out the whaling era, but it is happening now, right on North Front Street in the city’s historic waterfront district.
The boat-builder is Christian Smith of New Bedford. He and his wife, Jennifer, started GreenFleet in 2009. The program is free for all New Bedford teens to join. Any teen who signs up is in the program.
The Smiths have four main intentions with GreenFleet:
To teach inner-city teens from New Bedford to build boats
To teach them to use the boats they build
To have them use those boats to haul garbage from SouthCoast beaches
To cultivate in these kids a pride in their waterfront
This is the type of program that is amazing to see first-hand.
Because it works.

“I found out about GreenFleet at the Working Waterfront Festival last year,” says Tyler DeMelo, 14.
The thin, quiet boy is a ninth-grader at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School. Dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans, he quietly chisels away at the wooden mold of the 18′ foot sharpie skiff.
“I was watching kids put a boat together, and I was interested in building and rowing.”
On a recent day in the North Front Street workshop, Tyler worked side by side with 12-year-old David Hughes.
“I just thought it would be cool to build my own boat,” says David, a Roosevelt Middle School seventh-grader with braces and glasses.
Looking ever the handyman, David dons a navy boiler suit, totes a saw around the GreenFleet workplace, munches on a Pop-Tart.
“It’s fun; it’s relaxing,” David says. “I like the fact that I can work on something like this on my own, outside of school. “And I love rowing. Before GreenFleet, I had only been on a boat once, with my uncle.”
Tyler and David – along with Jonathan Hughes, 14; Corey Pittsley, 13; Shawn Pina, 14, and Shain Pina, 17 – have already built a 12′ skiff and learned to row it in New Bedford harbor.
They’re working now on an 18′ sharpie skiff. The boats are replicas of the types built and used in and around New Bedford in the 19th century.
The teens signed up for GreenFleet in September. They finished a 12′ skiff in December. They’re now building the 18′ sharpie, hoping to finish by June.
While talking to a visitor, Christian Smith keeps one eye on Tyler, who is chiseling a notch in the mold.
“Watch the line! You’re taking a lot off at once,” he warns the boy. “Right there. Keep the blade on the line. That’s good.”
Then he smiles.
“We’re not building boats. We’re building kids,” he says. “The boat is merely the vehicle.”
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GreenFleet was born out of a conversation the Smiths had when they first started dating.
They were talking about a teen boatbuilding program in the Bronx called “Rockin’ the Boat,” and they both realized New Bedford needed a similar program.
“Many young people in New Bedford feel disconnected from the waterfront; it’s seen as exotic and inaccessible. That was my story,” said Jennifer Smith.
“I grew up in New Bedford; I’d see the water – but I didn’t go near it. I want these kids to appreciate the waterfront, and know they can recreate near the water,” she said.
So the New Bedford couple founded GreenFleet in 2009 “to promote growth, empowerment, education, self-esteem, personal responsibility, and environmental stewardship in urban, at-risk youth and the community at large through boatbuilding and on-the-water experiences.”
Greenfleet currently has a yearly budget of $22,000. They money is used only to buy supplies and rent the workshop. The kids pay no tuition, and the Smiths are volunteers – they each have other full-time jobs.
“Our goal is to keep the program free, so I spend most of my time looking for money,” Jennifer Smith said.
The Smiths and the kids meet at the brick workshop on North Front Street every Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m.
After completing a boat and learning to use it, they begin their “environmental missions” – visiting various shorelines to clean up litter.
Once on shore, they learn about the environment and ecology while cleaning. On any given weekend, the kids can haul anywhere from 8 to 20 bags of garbage, Jennifer Smith said.
The students recently rowed their skiff out to Palmer’s Island off the South End of New Bedford and they hauled in 20 bags of garbage in one hour.
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Besides cultivating a sense of stewardship toward the environment, and cultivating a sense of accomplishment in the workshop, the kids also learn academics in hidden ways.
“One of the kids was using a tape measure to find an angle the other day. He said, ‘We just did angles today in school, and I didn’t get it. Now I see it,'” Jennifer said.
“When we were at Palmer’s Island last week, the conversation was about the wind, and tides, and ocean ecology. We talk about math, science, physics, the history of New Bedford. The boat is merely a catalyst,” she said.
GreenFleet is currently seeking students ages 13 to 18 from New Bedford to participate in its 2011 boatbuilding and harbor programs. The program is free. Any New Bedford teen who applies is accepted.
No carpentry skills or previous experience is required. Snacks will be provided, but transportation is not.
GreenFleet is located at 122 North Front St., New Bedford. For more information about enrolling your child in a GreenFleet program, call (508) 322-8158 or (508) 971-6598. You can also e-mail or visit
Lauren Daley is a freelance writer. Contact her at
June 14, 2011 6:40 PM
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