Preservation, restoration really float this boat

Rhode Island trade school trains students to protect history through the art of shipbuilding

When a boat is restored, the vessel’s story—as well as its body—is preserved.

The ship’s legacy could be one of a kind, like that of the world’s only nearly complete 17th-century vessel, on display at the Vasa Museum in Sweden.

Or it could be at the heart of a nation’s identity, like the Mayflower II, a replica of the historic Mayflower that voyaged to present-day Massachusetts from England in 1620. Or, it could represent a family’s history—legends surrounding an ancestral yacht that raced in the America’s Cup.

When it comes to restoring ships of significance, companies, museums and individuals the world over look to graduates of Rhode Island’s IYRS School of Technology and Trades. IYRS students develop the increasingly rare and highly specialized shipwright skillset to preserve and build both wooden and high-tech vessels.

“Boats made much of human history possible,” says Kim Norton-O’Brien, director of development and marketing at IYRS. “Without having people who know how to restore them, maritime history can be lost very easily to the tides and time.”

That sentiment was the impetus for the school’s founding. A group of Rhode Islanders were concerned that, as time went on and new technology emerged, there would be a shortage of people who could maintain and restore wooden boats, which are “historic treasures,” Norton-O’Brien says.

The trade school was founded in 1993 in the city of Newport, on the banks of Newport Harbor, which hosted the America’s Cup sailing regatta for many years.

Originally, IYRS offered only programs related to ship restoration and building, but recently expanded to offer programs in high-tech manufacturing, leading to careers developing items as diverse as snowboard bindings, prosthetic limbs and custom light fixtures.

In 2021, IYRS was named one of the Best Maker Schools in the world by Newsweek.

A 501(c)(3) not-for-profit school, IYRS fundraises throughout the year to support the full student experience: to offer scholarships to everyone in need, cover the salaries of specialized faculty, and supply classrooms with tools and equipment.

The major fundraising event of the year is the IYRS summer gala, held this year on July 9. It’s the biggest fundraising function in Newport, notes Norton-O’Brien.

Thanks to donors and supporters, IYRS raised $500,000 at the 2022 event. The dinner-dance-and-auction featured renowned singer-songwriter Pat Benatar as the marquee performer.

Enbridge contributed a Fueling Futures donation of $7,500, in support of the school’s scholarships. About 70% of IYRS students receive some kind of financial assistance.

We’re committed to creating vibrant and sustainable communities near our operations, and one way we do that is by expanding educational opportunities for learners keen to develop their skills. Supporting scholarships is our way of empowering people to reach their potential.

A school like IYRS—the only one of its kind in the world—is playing a specialized role; it’s helping preserve and protect history by training people to be experts in a rare craft.

“Time marches on, but historic wooden boats need to be preserved,” Norton-O’Brien says. “They're beautiful. And, more importantly, they tell the tale of history.”