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Buffalo Maritime Center celebrates the spirit of sailing

Owen Mylotte, a high school freshman, charted his next four years around a passion that has nothing to do with soccer, gaming, girls or pizza.

He wants to build a boat.

“Wooden boats are very traditional and have that connection to history that really appeals to me,” the 14-year-old explained. “They are such a graceful streamlined way to travel that developed over centuries.”

A trip to Buffalo Maritime Festival last year cemented his plan.

For Owen and others in the area who want to learn the craft of boat building, its significant role in history and the difference wooden boats have made in Western New York, the Buffalo Maritime Center in Black Rock is their school.

Owen’s dream boat is a 24-foot sloop, a gaff rig with two sails and a cabin. He figured it will take up much of his spare time until 2019, when he graduates from Williamsville East High School.

Owen fell for sailboats after a couple of rides on the Spirit of Buffalo, a 73-foot topsail tour schooner docked at the Commercial Wharf.

“The feel of sailing got to me,” said Owen.

Thousands are likely to participate or enjoy in one way or another this weekend the Maritime Center’s festival.

Especially with the arrival Friday of the U.S. Brig Niagara on the Buffalo waterfront.

But people like Owen take advantage of the maritime center all year long at its location at 90 Arthur. The center offers boat courses, workshops, outreach programs, and historic conservation and restoration projects. It also serves as a working lab for boat design as well as a classroom to support budding mariners of all ages.

For Owen, it has become a second home.

“He just showed up at the center out of the blue one day and said he wanted to build a boat,” said Dan Mylotte, Owen’s father. “Within a month of that, it was like he had a second family. The maritime community has been very welcoming and supportive of his venture.”

The 27,000-square-foot structure that houses the maritime center and related enterprises was built in 1913 as a bronze foundry.

“We’re trying to preserve a unique part of the heritage of Western New York,” said Roger Allen, center director. “In trying to preserve traditional skills and an invaluable craft, we teach methods of building wooden boats.”

Allen is a master boat builder who started learning the craft 40 years ago at age 25, when he was hired as ship’s carpenter for Philadelphia Maritime Museum. Allen was charged with maintaining the museum’s 157-foot wooden sailing ship and collection of wooden boats.

Allen moved here from Manatee County in Florida to take the job at the maritime center, one of two paid positions in the nonprofit organization staffed by volunteers.

“The maritime center and its boat building program began as a part of the Buffalo State College Design Department in 1988,” Allen said. “It was started by three college professors who were excited about wooden boats. It first offered a kayak-building course and drew two students. The next year brought in 15 students, and by the third semester 40 students had enrolled.”

Initial courses were offered at the college by William Bartoo, Richard Butz and John Montague, a design historian and author who is now president of the maritime center’s board of directors.

Montague opened the door to family boat-building with his “Six-Hour Canoe” course, said Allen. The immensely successful course attracted so many people to the maritime center that it outgrew its space at the college. In 2009, the center became a nonprofit organization headquartered in a sprawling former foundry.

The maritime center is working to establish a bronze foundry and metal shop to further one of its signature programs: “Hand to Hand,” a boat-building program that teaches challenged teens in grades 10 to 12 to solve problems through boat building.

“Our objective is to keep them in school long enough to graduate,” Allen said. “Members teach them wood-working and metal-working. A class of 12 will make three 12-foot Black Rock Skiffs.”

Instruction takes place in the boat-building shop and on the waterfront. Students not only launch the boats they built, they will learn boating safety, navigation, maritime technology and coastal habitat ecology.

The Historic Boat Museum also has a home at the maritime center occupying 6,000 square feet of exhibit space. Thirty boats are displayed, including an 1840 Buffalo Harbor Ferry and a 24-foot racing keelboat. A maritime library is in the works and will feature a collection of historic boat plans, journals, magazines, books and archival documents.

Buffalo Maritime Center will host “An Evening Aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara” from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday. The fundraiser will offer food, drinks, music and an auction, with proceeds to benefit the center.