Boat Project Helps Keep Vets Afloat

By Jim Hoehn

As Rick Tafoya carefully steered the saber saw around the outline of what will eventually be part of the hull, the Marine Corps Veteran saw more than just a simple wooden boat.

“It does two things for my mind,” Tafoya said. “It’s a relaxing thing, just as much as yoga or golf is, it has that Zen effect for me. And then the creative piece of it. Taking raw material and transforming it into something that’s both beautiful esthetically, as well as practical for being out on the water.

Tafoya is part of a group of Veterans building a small wooden boat as a project with All Hands Boatworks, a non-profit organization that usually works with youth groups through hands-on, wooden boat building.

The project is part of the recreation therapy program at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. Recreation therapy is a way to connect Veterans with events in the community, build on their treatment, and improve mental and physical well-being.

All Hands Boatworks was founded in 2013 by Bill Nimke, whose background was teaching, although not shop class. He was familiar with other youth boat-building organizations around the country and saw the possibilities provided by Milwaukee’s myriad of waterways.

“The boat building is great in and of itself, it can be transformational for people working around a boat project,” Nimke said. “But, it’s the lessons learned. How can we take what we’re doing together and apply it? What relevance does it have maybe in the rest of our life? It ranges everything from learning new tool skills to work more cooperatively with a group.”

The organization has a small boat yard along the Milwaukee River, but also has an indoor shop in downtown Milwaukee, which is where the Veterans group meets weekly. The shop floor is dotted with other wooden boat projects with a wide range of designs in various stages of completion.

Mutual acquaintances put Nimke in touch with Courtney Zeller, a Milwaukee VA recreation therapist, who was looking for opportunities for Veterans.

“Last year, when I first contacted her, they started coming to the shop on a fairly regular basis, and we would organize some small projects, but we didn’t build a boat,” Nimke said.

Zeller said programs such as Boatworks help Veterans “build their self-esteem and confidence, and show them that the things that they have learned, they can use those skills now to help them in whatever area of life they want to work on.”

Joe Knox, a 59-year-old Army Veteran, had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised to be working on what Nimke said was an 8-foot solo drifter.

“When they asked me if I wanted to go boat building, I thought, ‘Oh, great. We’re going to go build some model boats with plastic parts and we’ll put it together with Phillips screwdrivers,” Knox said. “It wasn’t like that at all. Down here, it’s All Hands Boatworks. We do everything from raw wood. It’s a cool shop.”

This buzz of the bandsaw and scent of sawdust brought back a welcome rush of memories, Tafoya said.

“I’ve never worked with wood except for back in junior high in wood shop, industrial arts,” Tafoya said. “So, this is like bringing back memories of working in the wood shop, but also doing some additional things that I hadn’t done back then, and on a grander scale. It’s an appreciation for using the tools and doing different things and applying them to build this little project, but also witnessing all the other projects that are going on and seeing the different technique and the art, well to me it’s art.”

Under the guidance of Justin Kierzek, a program director at All Hands Boatworks, the project evolved from uncut pieces of wood to an uncovered frame to a recognizable hull ready for painting.

After much discussion about colors and schemes, the group decided on a pattern of blues and greens with an aquamarine feel.

“All of us agreed that the grain of the wood looked really nice,” Knox said of the pattern. “So, then what we did, we just took some lines and we copied the grain of the wood to get this design.”

After the boat is finished, the next step is to get it in the water, possibly in conjunction with a public event.

“My favorite genres of recreational activities are the water activities, the kayaking, sailing, being out on the boat during the charter boat fishing,” said the 59-year-old Tafoya. “So, this is taking a step back and doing the work to actually get the boat out there.”

Zeller said she hopes to continue working with All Hands Boatworks and build more boats in the future.

“Our goal is to do another project in the fall and hopefully we can continue with this group because it’s provided so many different opportunities for the Veterans.”

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