Wind, Fat, and the Ultimate Hybrid 

Local shipwright brothers explore the future of boat building

Growing up in Woodstock, Vt., where much of the water stays frozen for half the year, Jamison and Ryan Witbeck weren't exactly born into boat building. Jamison headed south to earn his psychology degree at Coastal Carolina University, but realized when he graduated that he wasn't ready to pursue an office-based profession.

"I asked my mom, 'What should I do with my life?' and she said, 'Do something you've always wanted to do,'" recalls Jamison. "I said, 'Well, I've always wanted to build a wooden boat."

That was 1996. Today, Jamison and Ryan are putting the finishing touches on Kekoa, the 77-passenger catamaran (two-hulled sailboat) they built over the last two years at the Navy Yard at Noisette in North Charleston. Their hope is to use Kekoa as a teaching tool with their company, Lost Trades, a business based on providing adventure travel, environmental education, and motivational experiences.

"A conventional fiberglass and foam boat will end up in a landfill in 50 years, whereas a wooden boat, properly sealed with epoxy, could last anywhere from 150 to 200 years," says Ryan. "There are thousands of discretionary travelers that want to reach spectacular places, and they really do care about the way that they get there. What better way to reach these spots than by sailing under 1,100 square feet of canvas?"

Boat building, however, is historically not the most environmentally sensitive of practices. Old growth tree species like white oak and mahogany are the sought-after wood for hulls and decks because of their flexibility, strength, and density. They're also the ones the U.S. Coast Guard will certify, a necessity for a boat like Kekoa that plans to take on paying passengers. The Witbecks didn't cut any corners, but in nearly 12 years of honing their craft, they've learned both the difficulties and possibilities of being sustainable in the industry.

A Dream Realized

After finishing at Coastal Carolina, Jamison moved to Charleston and took a "grinder monkey," $6-an-hour job building a wooden catamaran with Mark Bayne, the famed shipwright who recently led the construction of the Spirit of South Carolina. He fell in love with the process, taking precise notes on every aspect of the design. Ryan rode a bus down from Vermont to work alongside Jamison for six months, and the pair managed to land spots on a delivery crew to Puerto Rico.

"That trip set the hook for getting us involved in sailing," says Ryan. "We got our Wal-Mart $5 rain jackets, jumped on board, and sailed 1,400 miles. We had 16-foot seas, and the captain was a pirate. He said, 'We're going to go east until the (stick of) butter melts, and then we're going to take a right,' and that's what we did."

After that trip, Ryan set off to Arizona's Prescott University, where his senior project was a business and construction plan for their own wooden catamaran. Jamison joined him to help, working in the school's gear room for extra money. With their professor-approved plan in hand, the duo returned to Charleston in 1999 with their youngest brother Kyle. The trio was flat broke, but determined to build a boat.

So they knocked on doors. They needed hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the banks weren't interested in a '74 Ford, '83 Toyota pickup, or a collection of tools as collateral. They drove to New York City to meet an investor who ultimately declined to finance their venture, but he did offer some helpful advice: "Don't wait for anyone to write you a check; get enough to get started and just go."

Back in Charleston, they walked house-to-house on Johns Island along the Stono River, searching for a yard with easy access to the water, and a homeowner who would let them turn their backyard into a boatyard, for free. Michael Jennings of the Jennings Towing Company set them up under a live oak by the river, and in sweltering mid-August heat, they began their work. Enough money came in to buy some lumber, and once it looked like the shell of a boat, other investors started to take them seriously.

After a year and a half of labor and a daily struggle with a goat determined to eat their supplies, the brothers had the 50-foot-long, 27-and-a-half-foot wide Allura. It was beautiful, a quarter mile from water, and wedged between two live oak trees 28 feet apart.

"We didn't want to use cranes or an 18-wheeler to move it," says Jamison. "We made tracks to put the keels in, but didn't want to grease it with axle grease, so we were thinking dish soap."

Just in time, they got a serendipitous phone call from another boat builder who recommended they use bananas. It was cheap, so they picked up 60 pounds of fruit from the Vegetable Bin on East Bay Street.

"We threw them in there and gave one tug with the tractor, and the boat took off down the skids," says Ryan. "We were jumping up on the bows trying to stop it before it got to the end of the 16-foot tracks. It was like Looney Tunes."

With the Allura launched, the brothers sailed to the Virgin Islands, where they spent five years taking tourists snorkeling and cruising the Caribbean. Jamison even built a tree house where he lived with his family. They were locked in to serving cruise ship patrons though, and both wanted to focus on eco-travel for a clientele interested in learning. They sold the boat and returned to Charleston in 2006 to start fresh.

The Brave One

"Wooden catamarans are growing like mad in this country, because they offer some things that are not available with mono hulls," says Captain Bill Pinckney, an elder statesman of the maritime industry, in town last month for HarborFest with the tall ship Amistad. "One is space. Two is, if you don't overload them, they offer you speed. Three, they give you the opportunity to go places you can't with a mono hull, because most of them don't draw more than four feet of water. And if you put a pot on the stove, it stays there."

The Witbecks have found that much of the sailing community snubs catamarans — Polynesia is the only area with a history of wooden cats, and it's a relatively new movement. Kekoa, which hit the waters of Charleston harbor in April, may play a role in changing that. (The ship name comes from the Hawaiian word for "brave one.")

A big reason the brothers chose catamarans over traditional boats was the ability to use plywood instead of large, old growth planks. Eighty-five percent of Kekoa's wood came from young trees. To demonstrate the potential of further lessening the impact of boat building, they built a prototype canoe alongside the catamaran out of Paulownia, a fast-growing tree native to China that can gain inches in diameter each year. With their leftovers, they're even designing about 50 lightweight wooden surfboards.

Some day, the brothers dream of building a catamaran using the most sustainable woods possible, but they're limited today by industry standards and Coast Guard regulations.

"Basically, we go by old practices that have been used generation after generation — the common sense of wood building," says Lt. Miles Greenway, the Coast Guard's assistant chief of inspections in Charleston. "Traditionally, we use old oak in frames. That's why Old Ironsides in Boston has that name — the oak is so strong that cannonballs bounced off of it."

The brothers don't disagree, but they plan to continue researching ways of minimizing their impact. For Kekoa, they utilized the lowest VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) epoxy available on the market, and through efficiency used 100 gallons less than in their previous projects. The pair added the same photovoltaic particles used in solar panels to the paint on the boat's surface, storing energy that creates a soft blue glow across the entire deck at night. Their sanders included vacuum attachments, protecting air quality and enabling them to recycle the dust. And every bit of scaffolding and shop wood was pulled from dumpsters.

"Here we are, two young entrepreneurs trying to make a name for ourselves, and we're poking our heads out of dumpsters at other construction sites," jokes Ryan.

Kekoa's twin engines are diesel, allowing them to run biodiesel once they receive approval from the company offering their warranty. And of course, 160 pounds of bananas helped them tug it the half-mile from their construction tent to the harbor.

The Witbecks again have investors to pay off and are asking $900,000 for the boat. Their hope is to find a buyer who supports their mission of education and inspiration, and will then hire them to operate it, leading and documenting purposeful adventure trips around the globe.

"We intentionally put the horse before the cart. We're trying to downsize the American dream and to get people off the couch," says Jamison. "We want to get kids out here and use this as an educational tool. A week on a boat or in a tree house is inspiring, and I think Kekoa is a great platform to teach sustainability. Sailboats are the ultimate hybrid."

Now 34 and 32, Jamison and Ryan hope Kekoa will help them take Lost Trades to the next level. They're looking for corporate sponsors to begin a pair of "life-long learning institutes" in the mountains and the Caribbean, and developing ideas for inspirational video shorts.

A first concept: "This boat runs on American fat."

"Why not make a video of a person getting liposuction, then convert it to biodiesel and pour it in our tanks?" asks Ryan with a straight face. "I think that would be a pretty good hybrid — wind and American fat. But we'll need some backing. Without that we're just a bunch of dreamers."

To learn more about Lost Trades, watch videos of Kekoa's construction, or contact the Witbecks about motivational speaking opportunities, visit www.losttrades.com


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