Josh Sutfin, left, and Chris Dunham take sailboats built by Dunham and other Butte Falls High School students on their maiden voyages Saturday at Willow Lake.

The Business of Boats

BUTTE FALLS — Braving wind-whipped waves, self-taught high school sailors put their hand-built boats to the test over the weekend, successfully sailing across Willow Lake.

The launching of the two 12-foot sailboats was the apex of a project in which the students not only built boats, but purchased kayaks, paddle boats and row boats to rent out during the summer.

"The beauty is that it's not only fun, it gives the students an appropriate connection to the real world," said Chris Mathas, a local volunteer and adviser who came up with the idea of building rental boats as a practical student project. "Instead of asking, 'Why am I learning this?' they see for themselves."

Butte Fall High School seniors Brandon Zantman, Caleb White and Dillon Ross built the first boat last year. When they graduated, they passed their tools to senior James Beals and sophomores Chris Dunham, Andrew Turnbow and Travis Eller, who completed the second boat earlier this year.

Forming the boats out of wood, epoxy and fiberglass was done in the high school shop during first period.

Beals volunteered to take on the extra task of building an exact one-sixth-scale model of the last boat. He presented it to Jackson County Commissioner Dave Gilmour in a short ceremony on Saturday to thank him for his support, which he's lent to the project since Mathas first conceived it in 2005.

Gilmour thanked the group and promised to find a prominent location for the model.

"This is such a wonderful project," said Gilmour. "Butte Falls is doing what all the bigger schools are trying to do. You're showing that in small schools, where you have teachers and parents who care about the kids, things get done and usually without a lot of grants and funding."

Mathas, who never was a sailor and never built boats before, said he finds it difficult to describe where he got the idea for the project.

"Somebody tugged on my shirt sleeve in 2005 and asked if I could help them find some money. So, I guess I just recognized that all the elements were available," he said.

"The lake was there with no boats. The high school shop was there with no structured project going on. There was a need for grant writing to bring money into the system and of course the students were a ready-made labor pool."

He just recently learned of a $9,500 grant given to the group by the Carpenter Foundation.

Mathas said that with help like that, the original project continues to grow well beyond boat building. The students have set up a corporation and staffed the organization, from chief executive officer to frontline staff, with their fellow classmates.

With a $15,900 grant from the Reed and Carolee Walker Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation, they were able to purchase five paddle boats, two kayaks, a couple of row boats and another sail boat.

"It's a sizeable fleet," said Mathas. "The students have been renting them to the public since June and they've done a respectable business for their first year out."

This year the budget forced boat rentals to stop at the end of July, but next year, Mathas hopes to rent through the entire summer.

He said that community support for the project continues to grow with more and more people pitching in.

Dick Goodboe of Rogue Recreation, the concessionaire at Willow Lake, said the company is glad to have the students at the lake.

"We're not charging them anything at all," said Goodboe. "Anytime I see kids trying to do something right, I think it's time to support them."

Each boat has a metal plaque attached to it, listing the students who built it.

"It was really a lot of work, but well worth it," said Dunham as he prepared to sail the first boat. "They were fun to build and I'm loving every minute of it."

When Josh Sutfin was given the chance to take out the other boat on its maiden voyage, he eagerly left his regular rental fleet job to fellow student employee, Katie Garote.

"This should be fun on a windy day like this," he said.

Gilmour helped Beals open a bottle of sparkling cider and christen each boat with a sprinkle of the non-alcoholic beverage.

Then, into the wind they went. Flawlessly, the fledgling sailors made two trips back and forth across the lake.

"It's been a long time coming," said Mathas. "But it's only the beginning."

Bill Miller is a Southern Oregon freelance writer. Reach him at

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