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Columbia family builds boat and family ties

The weekend project yields countless hours of memories and outdoor fun.

COLUMBIA, Mo.--Mike Ortbals probably will remember Father's Day 2003 for the rest of his life. Chances are his wife and children will too. At the beginning of the weekend they started building a family boat. At the end of the weekend, they put it on the water for the first time.

The Ortbals family took on the project for several reasons. For Mike's wife, Lisa, it was a way of honoring a guy she considers a world-class dad. For the couple's children--Katie 12, Claire, 10 and Nathan, 6--it was a chance to try something completely new and get a sense of accomplishment. Mike says the project was a terrific way for him to spend quality time with his whole family.

Most families would build a boat in their garage or back yard. The Ortbals built theirs under the awning at the Columbia Holiday Inn Select. They were one of the main attractions for hundreds of outdoor communicators who gathered in Columbia last June for the Outdoor Writers Association of America's annual conference.

The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation wanted a family to build a boat during the conference to show how doable and how much fun it is. A family friend who works at the Holiday Inn recruited the Ortbals because she knew Mike enjoyed taking his children fishing for bluegill and crappie. Up to that point, he had been taking them in a canoe.

The boat they built is a flat-bottomed 12-foot, wooden Bevin's skiff. It came as a kit from the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. "We had to shape the pieces of wood and fit them together," said Mike. "The kids did most of the actual work. I bent the plywood sides into place, but they did the hammering, cutting, planing and gluing. It was a neat Father's Day project."

As the Ortbals worked on their boat, writers, magazine editors, television producers and photographers stopped to visit, take pictures and interview them. Often they had boat-building stories of their own or shared childhood memories of fishing trips with parents or grandparents.

They worked about 8 hours on both Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday evening, the proud family launched their still unpainted boat in the Holiday Inn's swimming pool to the applause of outdoor communicators from all over the United States.

"We were all pretty excited about launching the boat," said Lisa, "The kids were a little concerned that it might leak, but it didn't. I think they really enjoyed all the attention."

The Ortbals eventually painted their boat royal blue on the outside and a light cream color inside. It is less tippy than their canoe, and it is big enough for Mike and all three children.

Mike, who manages the drafting department at Semco, Inc., in Columbia, is no stranger to weekend projects. He and Lisa have owned a couple of "fixer-upper" homes, so he has plenty of experience working with wood. However, he said the kit and instructions are simple enough for anyone to build with a few basic tools.

Lisa, who works as a neonatal nurse at Boone County Hospital, said building the boat made this Father's Day one of the best ever. She said the experience was such a positive one that their Cub Scout pack is considering building another skiff and auctioning it off as a fundraiser. "It's a great project," she said. "Kids don't get many opportunities to do something like that."

For more information about building your own boat, visit or contact the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, P.O. Box 25036, Alexandria, VA 22313. Phone 703/549-6715. E-mail The group's Web site,, has ordering information for the skiff kit or plans.

- Jim Low -




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