(This story originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)
CORTEZ – There’s a lot of unfinished business inside FISH Boatworks.
Several old wooden boats sit in the facility, each at different stages of restoration. To the right, saws of all lengths hang on the wall.
Despite the rustic look of its many tools, the facility at 4404 116th St. W. is spotless and shiny — and where Herman Kruegle feels perfectly at home.
The 77-year-old retired engineer is one of a small group of volunteers at Boatworks, part of the Florida Institute of Saltwater Heritage — or FISH.
Established in 1991, FISH is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the heritage of Florida’s traditional Gulf Coast maritime communities. FISH also manages a large preserve in Cortez, the northwest corner of which is occupied by the Boatworks facility.
Boatworks’ objective is primarily to restore and build wooden boats. Used boats are often donated to the facility and volunteers like Kruegle work to help restore them under the supervision of manager Rick Stewart.
On a recent afternoon inside Boatworks, Kruegle recalled his first day as a volunteer.
“It was on a boat called the Sally Adams … he (Stewart) had me on my stomach and hands and knees inside scraping and painting it, but when it was finished, it was rewarding to see it,” said Kruegle, who lives part of the year in Longboat Key with his wife and the other part in New Jersey.
Stewart, who also runs his business Duette Carriage Company inside the Boatworks facility, has a crew of eight steady volunteers. And the 51-year-old marine consultant is seeking more. New volunteers can expect to learn about restoration, different painting techniques and priming, among many things.
“I’m looking for carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians,” Stewart said. “Any trade is welcome.”
Stewart has been building boats for more than 30 years now and drew a lot of influence from his grandfather, Henry Wilder, who made Stewart feel welcome in his woodshop when the craftsman was a young boy.
Boats made of fiberglass seem to be the norm these days. But for Stewart, there’s nothing like the feel of a wooden boat.
“My heart is really into wood. There’s just something about it … it’s warm. It rides differently on the water than a fiberglass boat,” the craftsman said.
It’s more graceful — more forgiving, according to Stewart. It’s also a lot more work.
On a recent afternoon, Stewart walked around the facility, which includes a kitchen — the galley, he says — storage and bathroom with shower, for when volunteers want to wash after pitching in.
Stewart ran his hands over each boat and spoke in detail about its state. There’s the Bahamian Abaco Dingy and the North Carolina boat — the Spritsail Skiff. Outside, Stewart showed off another boat, which was actually built in Cuba and found in the Bahamas with a Russian diesel engine in it.
Stewart didn’t hesitate when asked why wooden boat preservation is so important.
“Today when you buy something, it’s already obsolete,” he said. “If you buy a hand-held device or some sort of electronic equipment, as soon as you pull it off the shelf — guess what? It’s done.”
There’s another one waiting to come out right behind it, Stewart said, adding that these days, “everything is ‘right now.'”
“However, the craftsmen, the boat builders, the artists that work in wood like myself are dying off and they’re not being replaced,” he said.
Stewart would like to do for others what his grandfather did for him — instill the heritage and craftsmanship that’s being lost.
“The only way to preserve the heritage that once was is by continuing to perform the task at hand,” he said. “I can’t get enough of it and I want to give back what I’ve learned … to continue the momentum to keep it alive.”
For more information on FISH Boatworks, call Rick Stewart at 941-580-1036. The facility is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.