At the beginning, what excited Megan Mitchell most about the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Shipwright Apprentice Program was the chance to put boatbuilding theory into practice.
Over three years, Mitchell has learned while doing her part on a variety of projects, most notably the CBMM Shipyard’s build of Maryland Dove. As she completes the program, CBMM’s Seip Family Foundation Shipyard Apprentice is grateful for the hands-on experiences building, repairing, and maintaining traditional Chesapeake Bay vessels – and the sawdust-infused memories she’s gathered along the way.
“In this industry, there are so many things that you really have to learn by doing,” said Mitchell, who came to CBMM after completing a one-year program at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock, Wash. “For me, this has been great for the guided experience and having a whole yard full of teachers to learn from.”
Mitchell officially graduated CBMM’s Shipwright Apprentice Program last Friday in a Shipyard ceremony attended by CBMM staff and friends. She became the third graduate, and first woman, to complete the program since it became accredited through the Maryland Department of Labor in 2018.
The graduation ceremony offered a well-deserved celebration of Mitchell’s growth as a boat builder and contributions to the team since arriving in January 2021.
“We’re so proud of Megan and the work that she has put in during her apprenticeship,” CBMM Vice President of Shipyard Operations Christian Cabral said. “Megan rose to every challenge that we sent her way with a thoughtful approach that rubbed off on everybody in our Shipyard. We’ll certainly miss having Megan around every day, but we know she’ll be great in what’s next for her.”
Mitchell’s path to a career in boatbuilding is a testament to that determination and enterprising spirit.
A Northern Virginia native, Mitchell had barely ever been in a boat before taking up sailing as a student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. After graduation, she contemplated a career in data analytics before a volunteer opportunity at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport led to a leap into the world of traditional wooden boatbuilding.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take chances and see where it leads you,” Mitchell said. “If I had done the wise thing and stayed on the path that I decided on in college, I wouldn’t be here, and I’d probably be a lot more miserable.”
Mitchell’s one-year program certificate from the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding satisfied the first year of CBMM’s apprenticeship program, which in full requires participants to log 8,000 hours of real work experience, plus leadership and management skill development.
With that knowledge base, Mitchell was excited to dive in at CBMM to learn the trade one project at a time, working alongside CBMM’s shipwrights on traditional Chesapeake vessels for outside clients as well as CBMM’s own historic floating fleet.
Some of the biggest learning moments came in the small details of the job, she said.
“There are a few neat bits of repair that I’m proud of, but they’re all under several layers of paint now,” Mitchell said with a smile.
Among the highlights of her apprenticeship: Mitchell handled a good portion of the caulking on Maryland Dove and also assisted Curatorial Shipwright Sam Hilgartner on spar making and rigging on the reproduction of the ship that accompanied the first European settlers to Maryland in 1634.
Most recently, Mitchell led the new build of a St. Michaels sailing scow with help from CBMM’s Rising Tide after-school program. The project, involving collaboration with CBMM’s Shipyard, Education and Curatorial teams to revive a century old design utilized by the Miles River Yacht Club, served as a capstone of sorts to her apprenticeship.
Beyond those projects in the Shipyard, Mitchell was able to take courses in marine welding and metal fabrication through Chesapeake College as part of the apprenticeship. She also received Marine Corrosion Certification through the American Boat and Yacht Council, logged 360+ hours of sea time on CBMM vessels, and gained experience leading CBMM’s Women’s Woodworking Workshop.
“Megan’s confidence has grown immensely during her time here,” CBMM’s Shipyard Education Programs Manager Jenn Kuhn said. “It’s been really cool to see. She’s a lot more comfortable now going after a project and knowing that she’s got it.”
Along the way, Mitchell found the atmosphere on CBMM’s waterfront campus to be a strong fit for what interests her most about the field, which is sharing the history of the vessels and explaining the trade. She hopes to ultimately find a position within the industry that emphasizes project management and education.
“Boatbuilding seems like this horribly complicated, arcane thing, but it doesn’t have to be,” Mitchell said. “It is complicated, but it’s not necessarily difficult. It’s just a lot of moving parts. So, I see that there is a need in the maritime museum industry for people who can explain this complicated thing with many moving parts in a way that people find approachable.”
Mitchell called being the first woman to graduate from CBMM’s accredited program “important but shockingly not very daunting.” She’s found the Shipyard and wider boatbuilding industry to be largely inclusive and welcoming for anyone willing to put in the work.
No doubt it helped to have Kuhn, who completed a CBMM apprenticeship prior to the program’s accreditation, as a model to follow. Ultimately, Mitchell hopes that she can similarly set an example for the next generation of boatbuilders.
“Since I have been here, now there is space for someone else who is like me,” Mitchell said. “That’s someone who doesn’t necessarily come from a boating background, someone who is more the crafty sort than the hard-bitten Chesapeake sort, and someone who is a woman.”