As the Composites Technology Program Manager at the IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Newport, Rhode Island, Kelsey Britton has a passion for designing and building with some of the lightest, strongest materials on earth.
Coop: Hi Kelsey. Where are you from, and was sailing a “thing” in your family?
Kelsey Britton: Hi Coop. Oh, yes. I was born and raised in North Kingston. My father just retired from the marine business last year. He’s a mechanic who started fresh out of high school and ended up managing a boatyard by the end of his career. My grandfather built three sailboats and he and my grandmother used to sail to the Bahamas and back. My mum taught me how to sail. My brother is a ferry captain. I have an uncle who runs a marina. So yes, boats and the waterfront run in my family’s blood. My mother’s entire family was in the boat game.
Coop: Ah, right. What are your first memories of sailing, of being in a sailboat?
KB: We used to have this big green sailboat. I don’t remember what it was, but it was big and green and called Neptune’s Car. Our parents would take us out sailing, around the Bay, under the bridges, fishing, and swimming. We’d sail to Dutch Island, anchor, and spend the night. Sleeping on the boat was just so cool. And I grew up watching my brother go on the Tuesday night catboat races with my grandfather. My grandfather built the Marshall Cat, so they would go and do the Tuesday night races. So those are my first memories.
Coop: Where did you do the catboat races?
KB: A lot of times out of Saunderstown Yacht Club, and now they do them at Wickford too. I grew up all around this stuff. My dad worked at Johnson’s Boat Yard and two streets over was Pleasant Street Wharf, so I grew up going there. I learned how to gut a fish at Pleasant Street Wharf (laughs), and my first experience with a Kegarator was at Pleasant Street Wharf.
Coop: A what?
KB: (Chuckles) A Kegarator…I didn’t know that was a big deal until I got older. People were like, “Oh, check this out.”
I thought it was perfectly normal. You get your dad a beer and put the money in the cup. It was great.
Coop: Did you sail when you were in high school?
KB: No. There was not a sailing team, and I was definitely in my rebellious streak at the time.
KB: Our parents were pretty keen we should not be in the marine industry. They wanted more for their kids: doctor, lawyer, teacher…you know, the usual. And all I wanted to do was build boats. But dad was adamant about us not working in the marine field, so I dove into Hospitality.
Coop: Well, you were pretty good at getting beers, eh?
KB: (Chuckles) Oh yeah, all that practice.
Coop: So, where did that lead you?
KB: I started off in fine dining and I’ve done everything from bussing tables to managing restaurants, and I love it. But I noticed more and more every year, I’d be staring at the landscapers and thinking, “Boy, I want be outside, not in a building.” And once after a rough day, I went home and talked to my cousin, who is my sound of reason. He sets me straight when I need to be set straight. He looked at me and said, “Kels, you are not your father’s life. If you want to build boats, go find somewhere you can learn how to build boats.” So that’s what I did. I found IYRS, and at the time the campus here in Newport only had the Boat Building and Restoration, with Systems and Composites at the Bristol campus. I wanted to do the Boat Building program, but that course had a two-year waiting list. I was hungry and I wanted to start NOW.
Coop: IYRS Boat Building had a two-year waiting list?
KB: Yes, only about six years ago. But I did not want to wait, I wanted to GO. I didn’t want to do Systems. I wanted to make my own name, not be my dad’s daughter mechanic, you know? Anyway, my dad had me talk with one of his contractors at Rhode Island Mooring, Mike, about composites. Dad’s plan was, “When she finds out about composites, she won’t like it.” But the more I found about it the more I wanted to get going. My dad found about that and just laughed, “Well, that backfired didn’t it?” So, I applied to Composites, I was accepted, and it was great. I learned so much, and for my Externship, I worked at New England Boatworks. And you know NEB is a small group of great composites techs. My immediate boss, John Pagnoni, took me under his wing and taught me all he could. I called him The Professor. But about six months later, I got a call from Bob Lacovara, IYRS Lead Composites Instructor, asking if I wanted to come and work here. That was a really hard decision because I was finally doing what I wanted, building boats. I was working on a 65-foot carbon racing/cruising boat, and it was amazing. Tough decision, but I took the job and I’ve been here almost five and a half years.
Coop: When you go home, do you go and build a boat in the garage…Kelsey’s Boat?
KB: Ha, funny question. Like everyone in the boat industry I have a boat, but it needs work. I have a Bristol 19 and my son Kiernan and I decided we were going to refit her, so she’s mostly pulled apart and we are doing everything.
Coop: How many hours a month can you work on the Bristol?
KB: Right now, none. I am working two job, but I did just buy a house so I have a place to bring the boat. And I have a friend’s Whaler I am fixing up for him. She needs a bit of love, so my boat is on the back burner, but my plan is to get her in the water this summer.
Coop: What’s the coolest thing about what you do?
KB: Two things. One is the people. I meet so many different people from everywhere. It’s always fascinating, with new perspectives and ideas, and we never do the same thing twice. The students all want to do different things. This is just a little melting pot. And I get to do stuff. I am not just pushing papers in an office. I get to build and I get to play. At IYRS, we learn through play (laughs).
Coop: What’s the other end of the spectrum? The thing that makes you want to leave and become, say, an astronaut?
KB: Usually paperwork. I am not a fan of paperwork. It gets done, but it’s not my favorite thing. And every once in a while, people. You’re with the same group for forty to sixty hours a week, so it’s just normal you are not going to get on with everyone all the time, especially in a creative environment. And it is something of a delicate balance. You are training students on a shop floor, so you are like their foreman, but they are paying you (IYRS) not the other way around, so you need to be mindful of that sort back to front relationship.
Coop: Where have some of your graduates ended up?
KB: Three or four went to American Magic. Two are at Symmetrix Composite Tooling, one’s at Aquidneck Custom Composites, and some are down south. I have another who is a manager for Safe Harbor Marinas, and a couple are at NEB, too.
Coop: Have you seen more women coming into Composites and into IYRS in general?
KB: In the school broadly, yes, but in composites, I have had only two women in my five and a half years, and that was this past spring. Otherwise, no women. They love Systems, Boat Building and Digital Modeling. Composites, not so much. Composites is a difficult business because it does not have a simple “This is what I do” explanation: doctor, accountant, boat builder, mechanic. It is a science experiment; Mr. Wizard meets Arts & Crafts. I tell people I work in Composites and they say, “Oh, Cosmetology?” It’s a hard game to explain, hard to market as a school or a career, and that’s a pity.
I think more women would be interested if it was easier to understand. You are really just working with recipes. For all the chemicals we use, you don’t need a Masters in Chemistry to do what we do. We had an admissions rep here, and while walking her through the shop she said, “I wish I knew about this when I was in high school. All they talk about is four-year colleges, computer jobs, and that kind of technology. I would have loved to do something like this.” I get it, but it’s changing, even from when I was in high school. We have Restoration grads who build fine furniture and rebuild historic houses, so it’s not so much boat building but the mental process of connecting your brain, your hands, and tools. And building things is just so gratifying.
Coop: What’s your advice for a high school girl who’s interested in boats?
KB: Do something you love. If you work at something you are not passionate about, it will drain you. Second, network. Go to yards and ask questions, then your passion and your work ethic will take you anywhere. I bring the class on field trips, and I ask the employers what they are looking for: “Show up on time, take your breaks at break time, and ask questions.” If you ask questions and are engaged, anyone in this game will tell you all you need to know.
Coop: Great stuff, Kelsey. Thank you so much.
KB: Always a pleasure, Coop. ■