The Peter M. Atwood under sail. (Courtesy photo)
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
ALTON — Midway through his career, when Keith King was a professor at Keene State College, he had a crisis that caused him to fall out of love with teaching. What saved him was the discovery of Outward Bound, and its philosophy of teaching by putting students in uncomfortable, but manageable, situations. And that is how he came to sail a 37-foot schooner on Lake Winnipesaukee for nearly a quarter century.
Then, about five years ago, Chris Owen, a former student of King's, approached him with the idea of filming a documentary about the boat's creation, and the purpose that it filled throughout its existence. The half-hour film, titled "Atwood," debuted in 2014 at the Somewhat North of Boston Film Festival.
On Thursday, Aug. 18, The New Hampshire Boat Museum and the Village Players are partnering to screen the film at the Players' theater on Glendon Street in Wolfeboro. King and Owen will be available for a question-and-answer period following the viewing. Admission costs $5 per person, for more information call the Museum at 603-569-4554.
The vessel that became the Peter M. Atwood was brought by King to Keene State as a discarded hull he acquired from the Maine Marine Museum in the early 1970s. King's idea was to use the boat as the challenge he would throw students into for an immersive, semester-long course he called Operation L.I.V.E. (Learning In a Vigorous Environment). For three semesters, involving about 50 students, he presented young adults with the challenge of constructing a wooden, twin-mast schooner.
"I tried to give them problems and let them figure it out for themselves," King said. Interest in the course eventually waned, and King assumed ownership of the boat. For seven years, and with the help of 52 more people – some helping for a couple of weekends, some for years – King worked on the schooner at his property along the eastern shore of Alton Bay. In 1986, the schooner was launched – 29 feet long on deck, 37 feet overall, 9 feet wide and with a draw of four-and-a-half feet. Designed as a two-thirds replica of schooners used for shuttling goods to and from southern Alaska, the boat had three sails rigged on two masts – one 37 feet tall, the other 42. The ship weighed 12,000 pounds, about half of which was lead ballast.
How did it sail?
"Beautiful. I miss it," said King.
The schooner was christened the Peter M. Atwood, named after a student who played several critical roles in the boat's construction, and who died at age 31 due to complications from an accident.
With a "good blow," he said, he would need two others to help sail, but on a calm day King could sail by himself. However, his inclination was not to be alone. Whenever possible, he returned to boat to his original intention for it: education.
"The most important thing for me was that it was the best classroom I ever had," said King. Campers at nearby summer camps, Boy Scouts and many others were able to experience what it was like to sail on a wooden ship.
For 23 years, he sailed on Winnipesaukee during the warm seasons, and hauled it out of the water for the winter, when he would perform needed maintenance.
"Each year, because it was the first boat I ever built, I made a lot of mistakes. Each year, I had to replace some of the planks." After two decades of such maintenance, King started looking for someone or some organization to give the boat to. Not just anyone, though; King wanted the Atwood to continue to be used as an educational device, to continue to challenge and delight people.
During what would become its final winter inspection, though, King realized that rot had reached some of the boat's structural components, and he made the decision to cut her apart, rather than risk a catastrophe on the lake.
Though not always at the same scale of the Atwood, King has been building boats for more than 70 years.
"When I was in high school, my dad bought a kit (for a wooden boat). I helped him build that ... That really was the beginning of it, I've been working with my hands ever since."
King will turn 90 this winter and he continues to build. He is currently working on a wooden Thompson skiff and a Norwegian sailing skiff. This winter, he will restore two other boats.
In each case, he looks for something new – a new design, a new way to do something, or a new person to challenge. For King, having a completed boat is nice but the most valuable part is found in the building.
"One of the philosophies of teaching is to create change in the learner," he said. And, like the Atwood, few remain unchanged after their interactions with King.
Keith King, 89, has been building boats since he was a high schooler. In the background is a Thompson skiff he’s working on with a friend. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho
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