×

Acorn to Arabella: Two friends and the journey of a wooden boat

  • Alix Kreder, right, videotapes Steve Denette, in boat, at right, and volunteer Wes Craft of Tennessee, just behind him, as they persuade a momentarily pliable steam-bent frame into place on the hull of the Arabella. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Steve Denette, left, and a crew of volunteers work inside the boat house in mid-September trimming planks of rough-milled white oak for the all-wood Arabella.

  • Volunteers Bob Pappas, left, of Florida, Ryan Maul of Colorado and Ross Cooper of Washington D.C., stack planks of rough-milled white oak after running it through a thickness planer.

  • Steve Denette, above, and volunteer Wes Craft of Tennessee bend and install a steam-softened frame into the hull of the Arabella.

  • Ryan Maul of Colorado monitors the steam box during a day of steaming and bending frames for the Arabella. It was his second time helping out with the project.

  • Plans for the Arabella are posted just below a part pulled from the 1926-1927 Victoria sailboat which Denette and Kreder purchased “for a song.” Its bronze components will see a second life when installed on the Arabella.

  • Denette and Kreder fashion their own fasteners  from copper and silicone bronze to avoid galvanic corrosion.

  • Ryan Maul of Colorado adds wood to the fire box during a “steaming in the frames” weekend in September.

  • Steve Denette, left, and his crew take a break for lunch during a day of steaming, bending and installing frames for the Arabella, taking shape in the boathouse at right.

  • Alix Kreder edits one of the videos he posts every other Friday for the Acorn to Arabella project he and Steve Denette are undertaking in Granby.

  •  Ryan Maul, left, of Colorado and Joe Damon of Westhampton bend and clamp a white oak frame, softened but still hot from the steam box, into the hull of the Arabella.

  • Volunteer Bob Pappas, left, of Florida, helps Steve Denette load a plank of white oak through a planer on Tuesday, September 18, 2018, in Granby. The lumber would eventually be brought down to a thickness of 2 1/2" then ripped to create 2 1/2" square frames to be steamed and bent into the hull of the Arabella. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Steve Denette, third from left, and "bend crew" volunteers, from left, Ryan Maul of Colorado, Bob Pappas of Florida and Ross Cooper of Washington D.C., run planks of white oak through a thickness planer on Tuesday, September 18, 2018, in Granby. The thickness is brought down a little at a time until a flat, even dimension of 2 1/2" is reached. These were then ripped to lengths of 2 1/2" square and on the following weekend 26 of them were steamed and bent to frame the shape of the hull of the Arabella. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joe Damon, left, of Westhampton and Bob Pappas of Florida hand a hot timber of white oak, fresh out of the steam box, up to other bend crew members inside the bow bending and installing them on the Arabella on Saturday, September 22, 2018, in Granby. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Videographer Alix Kreder streams activity on a "steaming in the frames" day for the Arabella on Saturday, September 22, 2018, in Granby. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Steve Denette tends a wide-view video camera in the boat house after running the thickness planer on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, in Granby. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Volunteer Wes Craft, center, of Tennessee, Ross Cooper of Washington, D.C., below, and Joe Damon, right, were part of the "bend crew" installing frames in the Arabella on Saturday, September 22, 2018, in Granby. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Boat house, with plans for the Arabella. Photographed Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Granby. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The crew takes a break from steaming in the frames on the Arabella for a lunch that included gumbo made by chef-for-the-week Odie Tucker, standing, of New Orleans. Behind them, under the tarp, is the 1926-1927 Victoria which served as a bunkhouse for some of the out-of-town volunteers and whose bronze fittings are tapped for a second life on the Arabella. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Alix Kreder videotapes from the upper level of the boat house during the "steaming in the frames" event for the Arabella on Saturday, September 22, 2018, in Granby. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Steve Denette, photographed in the boat house on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in Granby. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smoke from the wood-fired steam box rises between the boat house, left, and the Victoria, under a shroud at right, during the "steaming in the frames" event on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Granby. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Steve Denette, left, and Alix Kreder stand on the upper level of the boat house with the Arabella, the 38-foot wooden boat they're building in Denette's yard in Granby. These sets of frames, in foreground, have already been steamed and bent and are in the process of being sanded and varnished. Photographed on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Steve Denette, left, and Alix Kreder stand on the upper level of the boat house with the Arabella, the 38-foot wooden boat they're building in Denette's yard in Granby. These sets of frames, in foreground, have already been steamed and bent and are in the process of being sanded and varnished. Photographed on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

According to Alix Kreder, his college buddy Steve Denette had been working on a certain project for years — but only in his head.

“Years and years,” added Denette as he broke for lunch in the kitchen of his Granby home one weekday last month. “Building a big wooden boat and taking it on an adventure — preferably around the world — has always been one of those little twinges in the back of my brain,” he said. “It’s like, ‘That’d be cool to do, someday…maybe.’” Now with the help of a community that he and Kreder have fostered — online as well as in person — the two are realizing that dream in a project they’ve dubbed Acorn to Arabella.

“Arabella” is a 38-foot, 25,000-pound displacement wooden boat based on designer William Akin’s 1934 plans for the “Ingrid.” “Acorn” refers to the fact that the boat is being built from scratch — with 90 percent of its lumber milled onsite from the family property of Denette, a fifth-generation Granby native.

After meeting at Unity College in Maine, Denette and Kreder, now 33 and 32, respectively, went in completely different directions but stayed in touch. Kreder, originally from France, worked on both sides of the Atlantic, while Denette earned a Master’s degree in education; he also added to his considerable woodworking skills and began accumulating a collection of odd tools he thought he might need one day.​​​​​​

Then during a Cape Cod vacation, around 2010, Denette visited a used bookstore to pass the time on a rainy day and happened upon the book “Fifty Wooden Boat Plans.” 

 “That really got the gears going,” Denette said. He began to entertain the idea of building a boat. After a few more years of serious research, he felt he had the tools, the knowledge and the “lion’s share” of materials — the trees — that he would need to make it happen.

Kreder was intrigued but concerned about how to pay for it. Then, in 2016, he got a text from Denette: “I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out a way for us to get paid to build the boat.” In his research Denette had seen videos of people sailing around the world and supporting it with a type of subscription-based “crowdfunding” for artists and other creators through a platform called Patreon. Those who are interested in a project — who get enjoyment or education or some benefit from it and want to see it continue — will sign up to give a set amount, say $1 a month, or $10 a month. Denette, “technologically illiterate” by his own admission, suggested Kreder do the videos.

Kreder, though he has a degree in photography from the Maine College of Art, had never edited a video before but agreed to film the boat-building process and produce videos every other week as a way for people to see, appreciate and learn from the project. He left his job at a study abroad organization in Portland, Maine, to move in with Denette and begin learning video.

“When we first started, everything was on our own dime and in our spare time,” says Denette, who was working full-time as head route setter at the Rock Gym in Hadley. Kreder had picked up a job at a local coffee shop and both would work on the “boat build” on nights, weekends, vacations and holidays. 

Last winter, after casting a 4 1/2-ton keel of molten lead in their back yard, their YouTube subscriptions surpassed 10,000, and more people discovered Patreon. Soon there was enough monthly revenue to cover their expenses and both quit their jobs to work on Arabella full time. Now those followers are up to 70,000 on YouTube.

Some followers of the Acorn to Arabella project come from far and wide to contribute their time and skills to be part of it. Last month, three such volunteers — Ross Cooper of Washington, D.C., Ryan Maul of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Bob Pappas of Pensacola, Florida — worked at the site for an entire week leading up to, and including, the critical weekend of “steaming in.”

Over that week, Denette and this “bend crew” trimmed planks of rough-milled white oak into precise 2 ½-inch square framing for the hull. On the day of the steam-in, each of these lengths was placed in a steam box for 80 minutes or so to soften it up. Then, in a carefully orchestrated maneuver watched by a festive crowd on hand, the timbers were pulled from the box, one set at a time, and quickly fitted between the wooden molds on the boat. Before each piece has a chance to cool, it is bent using ratchet straps, brute force and the weight of the crew’s bodies and then clamped into place to create the gentle “S” profile distinctive to each side of the hull. Over the weekend, the crew was able to install 26 of the 74 frames needed.

Work over the last 2 ½ years has been consuming and challenging. “It’s like timber-framing on steroids — everything meets at funky angles,” said Denette. And the video production is the “biggest invisible part of the project,” actually more time-consuming than the boat build itself. Kreder regularly works through four to 10 hours of footage just to gain a 20-minute segment. But video is the best way to share the experience and fund it. The two say they won’t sacrifice quality for the sake of speed.

There’s a lesson here for a world where next-day delivery is becoming the norm, notes Kreder: “In terms of the educational aspect, it’s also a way to show people that things don’t get done overnight.”

Denette adds: “For us it’s about the boat and the journey and the whole process of that and sharing it.”

But seeing the impact they’ve had on people’s lives — all around the world — is something they never anticipated and has turned out to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the project, Denette says. He mentions the story of an Australian soldier who returned home with PTSD, lost everything and ended up in the hospital. During his hours of down time, he came across the Arabella videos and emailed Denette and Kreder to thank them for being a “bright spot in an otherwise dark time.” They sent him a link to a story about a veterans’ sailing program in Europe where everyone on board is dealing with PTSD. The next communication they got was a picture of the soldier sailing and a note saying that it has been helping him tremendously.

There are stressful moments, but the two friends maintain an easygoing attitude about the project. When asked how long it’s going to take to build the boat, their standard answer is “two to 10 years.” When they started the project, neither Denette nor Kreder had even sailed on a sailboat. Kreder said if you look back to the first videos, they’re “terrible.”

“But it’s great because, for both sides of the project (boat building and videotaping), we’ve taught ourselves and you can see the progression of it,” he added. 

As for whether it will be all smooth sailing from here, Denette is realistic in his outlook. “There’s a good chance we’ll have a hiccup,” he said.

Kevin Gutting can be reached at  kgutting@gazettenet.com