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Building their futures

At Safe Harbor Boys Home, a power boat is teaching life-altering skills


By DAVID HUNT, The Times-Union


Cody Scott had a choice: Get locked up or live along the St. Johns River.

Like other youths at Safe Harbor Boys Home, Cody, a 17-year-old from Ohio, was mixed up. He was getting in trouble with the law. He said he didn't care about the future.

Now, he's learning to build boats - a competitive-grade hydroplane in this case, which is a first for the 24-year-old organization.

"This is what saved me, saved my life," said Cody, who like all Safe Harbor boys is identified by first and middle name only. "I wouldn't have learned any of this, even if I'd stayed in high school and not gotten in trouble."

Safe Harbor Boys Home, based in Jacksonville, is an organization that acts as a sentencing and court-ordered placement alternative for at-risk boys between the ages of 14 and 17.

Safe Harbor uses the St. Johns River like a classroom. The boys learn to repair worn-down boats, which are donated. Through the work, they learn skills such as carpentry and welding, helping them to succeed in the workforce.

"As they fix the boats, they fix their lives," said Doug Smith, who oversees the repair projects at Safe Harbor.

Recently, the organization began turning attention toward racing boats as a way to further the experience.

"They're having fun. Competition keeps them interested and keeps them off the streets," said Karen Hensel, Safe Harbor's development director.

The organization recruited the help of Bill Walker, a 67-year-old St. Augustine man who started racing competitively in Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River at age 15. The retired jet engine technician said he thinks the youths will be race ready by fall, although a date for a competition has not been set.

The boys are starting small. Smith equated the boat's motor to a go-cart engine, capable of pushing the watercraft to about 25 mph. The sleek models Walker brought with him during a recent visit to Safe Harbor will go around 65 mph, he said.

Safe Harbor is located along the St. Johns River near the Blount Island Marine Terminal. The organization leases the property from Jacksonville Port Authority for $1 annually.

The authority also is helping the organization with the racing boat program. Materials for the first boat, which has been under construction for about three months, were paid for with a $3,000 authority donation.

Hensel said Safe Harbor is seeking more corporate sponsorship, enough to build 10 boats and develop a team to compete in American Power Boat Association events.

In the workshop, the warm smell of sawdust fills the air amid the whirling buzz of a power sander as the boys work on the boat frame.

For Cody, the project is an opportunity to learn metal work, putting together the rudder and strut. He said he'd like to become a welder when he's done with the program.

Another one of the youths, Robert Hall, 16, of Gulf Breeze, said he's helping tune the engine. He said he appreciates having learned how to sail and use the machinery in the shop.

"It's a good program. It takes a while to get used to, but it really helps out," Robert said.

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Revised: February 10, 2010 .

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