Though it may seem antiquated, the craft of wooden boatbuilding is timeless enough to unite three separate generations of Bowdoin students. For wooden boatbuilder Dick Pulsifer ’62, this technical art provides both a link to the past and and a way to connect with the current Bowdoin community.

Hull 111, a documentary produced by recent Bowdoin graduates Rita Liao ’15, Lucy Green ’15 and Eric Levenson ’15, follows the story of Pulsifer in his quest to build his 111th Pulsifer Hampton boat. The film aired on MPBN on October 8 and 10. 

Fascinated by the renaissance of the wooden boatbuilding craft, Pulsifer built his first Hampton boat in 1973 shortly after graduating from Bowdoin. Since then, he has completed 111 Pulsifer Hampton boats in his Mere Point Road shop in Brunswick, continually adding details and improvements to his model. 

“The main skill you learn is the ability to see what’s beyond where you are,” said Pulsifer. 
Pulsifer values maintaining a connection with the Bowdoin community through his craft, often mentoring Bowdoin students at his outpost. 

“It’s a real experience with physical accomplishment,” Pulsifer said. For Pulsifer, the value of manual learning is a complement to the learning that takes place in a Bowdoin classroom. 
Liao and Green were first introduced to documentary filmmaking last fall in Seashore Digital Diaries, a course taught by award-winning documentary filmmaker and 2014-15 Coastal Studies Scholar David Conover ’83. Inspired by the power of documentary film, Liao and Green approached Levenson, a then-apprentice to Pulsifer, with the idea of documenting Pulsifer’s craft as an independent project. Conover served as the project advisor and encouraged the three students to learn from each other’s skillsets.   

“Digital production is often a very collaborative endeavor,” said Conover.

Initially, the group set out to create a profile of Puslifer and the process of his boatbuilding. With no clear narrative, the film was fragmented for the first several weeks.
“It was very messy in the beginning,” said Liao. 

Conover encouraged the students to allow the story to unfold naturally, using the camera as a tool of inquiry. 

“For my part, it involved asking questions at certain times, more as a way for them to get clarity here and there, and also [encouraging them] to figure out how their perspective fit into the story,” said Conover. 

He pushed the students to keep a diary to consider why each was drawn to the craft of wooden boatbuilding. In this sense, each student became part of the film’s narrative, according to Conover. 

“I always look at filmmaking as a process where you spend some time out on the dance floor and some other time on a balcony looking down on the dance floor,” Conover said. 
For Conover, shifting between these two perspectives is an essential component in documentary production and was crucial in telling Pulsifer’s story. 

The three recent alums each brought their own interests and questions to the project. For Green, a visual arts major, the step-by-step process of building a boat was analogous to the meticulous process of painting. Levenson was curious as to young people’s involvement in boatbuilding in the digital age. Liao, passionate about meditation, was captivated by the connection between spirituality and boat-building.

“In the end, it turned out to be a self-reflection,” Liao said.

While initially averse to being on the other side of the camera, Liao began to view her relationship to Pulsifer’s story as a significant aspect of the film.

“It’s inevitable to have the filmmaker’s point of view because whenever you choose to show something, you’re choosing what to tell,” said Liao. 

With three generations of Bowdoin students involved in creating the documentary, the project provided a unique opportunity for reciprocal learning. 

“The effect of having the [multiple generations] and multiple connections with the College community I think was huge,” said Conover.

In addition, Pulsifer was not only an excellent craftsman and boatbuilder, but a remarkable teacher as well, according to Conover. 

“The learning environment [Pulsifer] has at his shop is a great complement to the College community learning environment,” said Conover.