Member Highlight

All Hands Boatworks

By Kevin Callahan

Boats aren’t built with rearview mirrors.

Ship captains steer toward the seas ahead.

Sails are rigged for the horizon beyond.

So, although All Hands Boatworks in Milwaukee celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, Executive Director and Founder Bill Nimke still sets the program’s sights in front of him.

“I think I speak for all of us here, from my board on down, we’re very focused on being around for a long time to come,” Nimke said. “but we all know there’s work that still needs to be done to make this a truly sustainable organization.

“We can’t rest on just the past accomplishments.”

All Hands Boatworks , which was incorporated in 2013, following a “pilot program year” at three Milwaukee-area schools, certainly achieved many milestones over the past productive decade, including topping the century mark for boats built with thousands of youths from 10-21 years old.

“It has just been growing and developing steadily, but when I think back, I mean, this organization started out of the trunk of my car,” reflected Nimke, who grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, graduated from nearby Fairfield University before embarking to the Midwest when he attended Marquette University for a masters degree in English.

Previously to AHB, Nimke was the founder and executive director of a charter high school in Milwaukee for five years and was the founding director of education for eight years of the Great Lakes education organization, Pier Wisconsin, which built the 137’, 3-masted schooner, the S/V Denis Sullivan.

“I’ve had a lot of different types of jobs, but I’m very fortunate that I reached an age and a stage to have the opportunity to take this little idea for an organization and grow it with a lot of other people coming alongside and helping out,” ,” Nimke said. “It’s not a job. It’s become a way of life.”

All Hands Boatworks staff includes Will Francis, Job Skills Director and Senior Boatbuilder; Tom Frank, Shop Manager; Meghan Wagner, Director of Youth Programming; and Patrick McBriarty, Special Projects, as well as volunteer instructors Paul Bargren, Trent Myers and Ed Koscik. (AHB currently has a job opening for another full-time programs instructor to join their happy crew).

“I’m blessed that I have a core group of volunteers,” Nimke said. “They just put in extraordinary amounts of time.”

Nimke and his group are most proud of having engaged, educated, and mentored more than 5,000 youths in metro Milwaukee in craft work and on-the-water activities.

Remarkably, over the last decade, AHB has built 145 skiffs, dories, sailboats, rowing gigs, and canoes.

“I keep track of them all, “Nimke said proudly, adding that AHB builds a variety of boats, but said the Bevin Skiff is “our bread and butter introductory project.”

“I know that there’s some organizations that will focus on a couple of different designs or boats and that’s great,” Nimke said, “and maybe we should, too.

“But we’ll look at something and then say, ‘could this be a viable youth- centered project?’ “

Interestingly, AHB also has done adult level boat builds as well. Still, the focus is clearly on working with young people to build functional and simple wooden boats while setting goals for education and character growth.

At AHB, the builds are truly about “building more than a boat.”

“I think of the different populations we serve, mostly with our youth and our schools, there is a need, there’s a request, there’s a desire for the type of hands-on learning we provide and the youth development that we offer,” Nimke said. “And I hope we continue to provide and deliver those services for years to come.”

All Hands Boatworks celebrated its milestone anniversary this past June with the launch at McKinley Marina in Milwaukee of all seven boats built by students in the past year.

And as rightfully proud Nimke is of these boats, AHB’s best builds are, as Nimke says, “friendships.” Quoting the old Irish toast, he recited: “There are long boats and there are short boats afloat on the boundless seas, but the best ships are friendships. Long may that ever be.”

Which, of course, means the best ships built by All Hands are the friendships still ahead of them over the next ten years and beyond.