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Updated: January 3, 2022

New director of WoodenBoat School eyes future builders to continue Maine legacy

aerial of fields, water and buildings Courtesy / WoodenBoat School Facebook WoodenBoat School, on a 64-acre campus in Brooklin, has its first new director in over 30 years.

Eric Stockinger is the new director of WoodenBoat School, a 64-acre campus in Brooklin offering courses in boatbuilding, repair, design, woodworking, metalworking, sailing, kayaking and more.

The school expects to host 800 students and 80 instructors this summer, and sign up for the 90-plus class offerings opens today. 

Growing up in suburban Detroit, Stockinger spent summers on Lake Huron when he got bitten by the water bug and went on to get a degree in freshwater fisheries management from Michigan State University. 

Introduced to woodworking by his father as teenager, he started building cabinetry, furniture and kayaks. He worked as a manager for outdoor outfitter REI in Detroit, San Diego and Dallas, then completed a two-year apprenticeship at the Apprenticeshop in Rockland, where he studied wooden boatbuilding. He stayed on as shop director, became executive director, then worked at Brooklin Boat Yard. 

person smiling
Courtesy / WoodenBoat School
WoodenBoat School’s new director, Eric Stockinger, came onboard in August.

Several years in, he started teaching at WoodenBoat School. In August, Stockinger became the school’s director, taking over from Rich Hilsinger, who had been director since 1990 after first studying and then serving as a shop manager and teacher at the school.

WoodenBoat School is an enterprise of WoodenBoat Publications, which includes one of Maine's most prominent magazines, WoodenBoat, as well as niche and digital publications, the WoodenBoat Show and the WoodenBoat Store.

The school, entering its 42nd year, runs from May through September. We asked Stockinger about his ideas for the school going forward. Here’s an edited transcript. 

person with sunglasses smiling
Courtesy / WoodenBoat School
Rich Hilsinger

Mainebiz: What did you like about the Apprenticeshop?

Eric Stockinger: It wasn’t just about the boats but about the community. That’s a thread through everything I’ve done. It was a great experience and an education in nonprofit business management. 

MB: What brought you from the Apprenticeshop to Brooklin Boat Yard?

ES: I was ready for a change. My wife found a teaching position in the greater Ellsworth-Blue Hill peninsula area, so we moved there. I connected with folks I knew at Brooklin Boat Yard and started working there. I was a boatbuilder on the floor and really had a lot of fun. Then I started as a project manager. When I left, I had run a couple of large build projects, including Legend, the Wheeler 38 replica of Ernest Hemingway’s yacht Pilar.

MB: What attracted you to the WoodenBoat School?

ES: I had been teaching classes at the WoodenBoat School. I always looked at the job of the director there, and thought, ‘That’s the job for me.’ It combined a lot of what I did at the Apprenticehop and REI and Brooklin Boat Yard. It’s like everything I’d done has led to this job. 

people building boat
Courtesy / WoodenBoat School
The school expects to host about 800 students and 80 instructors next summer. A 2021 class is seen here.

MB: How was the transition?

ES: Rich Hilsinger, the retiring director, stayed on the through the rest of the year, so I was able to work with him. I came onboard when classes were still going on and we had over 90 classes to organize for next year. So I was able to work through all of that with him and with our business manager, Kim Patten. There’s no way I could be doing this without Kim. She’s been here over 20 years and she’s amazing.

MB: Do you envision any changes going forward?

ES: Like anyplace, there are some things that probably need to be tweaked. A lot of that is behind-the-scenes. The biggest thing I’m working on is that there aren’t many women at the school. Last summer, about 20% of the students were women. When I broke that down — if you take out the sailing classes, which have good mix of female and male instructors and students — in the woodworking classes only about 5% of the students are women. A lot of that comes down to getting more female instructors and making the place more accessible. Fortunately, I know a lot of women in the industry, so I’ve been conferencing with them on how to make changes.

MB: Other changes?

ES: This was already happening when I came onboard — we’re switching to online registration. A lot of students who have been coming for years, if not decades, will be changing from phone registration to online registration. We’ve been working through that the last couple of months. That goes live on Monday [Jan. 3]. 

Another challenge is that a lot of the instructors aren’t getting any younger. Great teachers of traditional boatbuilding don’t grow on trees. Finding new instructors and new classes that are exciting to younger generations is a challenge. 

MB: Are you thinking of switching up the classes?

ES: We change the program a little bit every year anyway. Students can take courses like fundamentals of boatbuilding and introduction to sailing classes all summer. There are other introductory classes we teach every year, like diesel engines and woodcarving, which are popular. We also try to make sure that we have 10 to 15 new classes every year. For example, we had oar-making one year and spar building the next year. This year, we’re offering classes on building a Japanese boat and on marquetry. 

We also want to try to integrate better with some of the other wings of WoodenBoat Publications — doing more with the magazine, coordinating with other parts of the company. For example, back in the 1980s and 1990s, you’d see articles about someone building a small boat over the course of three issues of the magazine. Then that person would teach a class. I’d like to find the next generation of those people and have them teach and get them involved in the rest of the company. I want to bring the next generation of wooden boatbuilders into the school to become instructors.

MB: The school didn’t run in 2020. What did 2021 look like?

ES: We had 752 students. We took a lot of safety measures and 99% of the people showed up vaccinated. 

MB: What are you expecting for 2022?

ES: We’ll have 750 to 800 students, over 90 courses and 80 or more instructors. We have a summer staff of 10 to 12 people who run the waterfront, shop, kitchen and housekeeping. We house and feed about 75% of the people who come, so come summer, we’re like a hotel, restaurant and marina. 

Rich always said that the school is a manifestation of the magazine — people come to the school to do what they read about in the magazine. And because we’re located on an old saltwater farm on the coast of Maine, it’s a magical place for people. 

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