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Wooden Boat Magazine
Vietnam Boat Project Serves Multiple Goals
by Tom Jackson
It's like making a foreign-aid triple bank shot: provide hands-on experience with tools for young people in hard circumstances, keep a local boat building tradition alive, and give the resulting boats to families for whom a simple fishing boat can open up a brighter future.
This is the premise of a program established in Vietnam with support from a Maine-based nonprofit humanitarian aid organization called The Degenhardt Foundation and from Marc Heilner, a part-time resident of Blue Hill, Maine. Dawn Degenhardt started her foundation when she retired after 27 years as chief executive officer of Maine Aid and Protections Services, under which the boat program started before shifting over to the new foundation. Among its many humanitarian projects in developing countries, MAPS connected orphans with adoptive families. Degenhardt herself adopted nine children, three of them from Vietnam. One of them—Joy My Lien Degenhardt, who now has children of her own—returned to the country of her birth, where she has lived for 15 years, to coordinate first the activities of MAPS and now her mother's new foundation, which focuses on improving conditions for children. 'You can't go there and not want to do something," Dawn said. "We have so much, they have so little, and it's so easy to do a project."
Young men struggling with disadvantages learn vocational skills in a boatbuilding program in Trung Ha Village, Vietnam.
It was Joy's idea to bring fishing boats to the villagers of Trung Ha, in the Cam Kim Commune, Hoi An Town, Quang Narn Province. Joy took her idea to Heilner in 2005. Heilner and his wife, Pam, were in Vietnam so their adopted Vietnamese daughter, who came from Hoi An in 1996, could meet her birth mother. Heilner, an investment banker then living in London, England (and now in South Africa), is a wooden boat admirer (and, incidentally, a naval architect) who sails the cold-molded yacht HOI AN in Maine. When the Heilners connected with Joy in Vietnam, somewhere along the line they helped refine the idea to include boat building instruction. "The typhoons come through there with alarming regularity, and often their boats get destroyed—and therefore their livelihoods," Heilner said. "They [the foundation] were buying fishing boats and nets and giving them to the families, to get them back on their feet. All we were doing was tucking into that program by building the boats."
In the first round of boat building in 2005-06, four young men who needed a chance in life signed up to build boats under the tutelage of experienced boat-builders. The four boats the young men completed were typical to their area: slender, shoal-draft, wooden boats with planks joined together mainly by wooden pegs. Typical dimensions were 17' LOA, 4'6" beam, and 2'4"depth amidships. Midway through the second year of the three-year program, 10 students have now learned their trade. All of the boats have been awarded to families experiencing hard times and hoping to improve their lot by fishing."Vietnam is a developing, but relatively developed, nation," Heilner said. "What I've found impressive is that while there's this headlong push to industrialize and develop, they're doing that without completely destroying the history of what was Vietnam. They still have tradition and history. They strive for the same thing everybody else does, but they're doing it in a way that isn't destroying the culture."
Families that would benefit from owning a small fishing boat apply to receive the boatbuilding program's finished products.
At Cam Kim, "they were basically building fishing boats out of totally local natural materials." The planks are shaped largely by axe, and wooden pegs are the principal fastenings. Cam Kim is an island with perhaps 300 or 400 residents, and "all around there are people fishing, using these boats to get by. It's an incredibly pretty place, a lovely kind of river delta, and all along the sides are weirs and fishing boats. I like wood and I like the history, and what was going on here was positive in that it was fulfilling a real role in the society—building fishing boats— but at the same time protecting traditional methods of building. I'm certainly attracted to that."
In Vietnam, a lot can be accomplished with little money. A 13' boat costs $200 to $250, and Heilner estimates that the entire three-year boat building project cost will be about $10,000. Heilner liked the boats well enough to buy one for himself and have it shipped to his summer place in Blue Hill. He'd like to see the program become self-sustaining in the long run, and he thought the boat might serve as a tangible tool for fundraising. He hasn't taken the boat out yet, though: "It would be perfectly good on a calm morning in Maine, but the vessel itself is highly suited for this river environment. I think if you got into a strong chop, the shape is not right. It really sort of drives home to me that these boats are a reflection of where they came from.
"In terms of protecting this history, and producing something that's practical, I think so far we're successful," Heilner said. "But time will tell. Other people have to get excited about it," and ultimately the program will have to succeed by dovetailing with commercially viable ventures. Dawn Degenhardt says that after about six months of training, the young carpenters are finding opportunities: "They are so determined, they work so hard, they learn so much about carpentry that they can then get a job and take other youths and train them as well." Meanwhile, the foundation is considering supporting a "library boat" that would take books around to various islands.
This article appears is Wooden Boat magazine. Click to visit Wooden Boat magazine online
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Vietnam Photo Journal
by Don Funk