Michael Bull Talks About Boat Building in Austin
People of Austin Profile Series
Michael Bull, an Englishman turned Austinite, has been working with boats since his days growing up in Southampton, where he was trained in the apprentice system. But it wasn’t boats that brought Bull across the pond. “I came to the United States as a musician, basically,” Bull explains, sipping tea in his modern, light-filled Hyde Park home, as his 14-year-old dog, Lillian, stretches out by his feet.
Bull landed in New York, but found gigs weren’t easy to come by. After a few years, he felt a pull back toward the boatyards and the water, and applied for a job at the South Street Seaport Museum in Manhattan. “I still remember the very first day I got to do that job. It was teaching, something I had never really done before.” But it was clearly something he had a knack for.
After a decade running a boat building school and restoring old vessels at the Seaport Museum, Bull and his wife found their way to Austin the way a lot of us did: at a friend’s urging. “She said this is a great place to visit, and we came to visit and we liked it. We said, ‘We could give this a try.’”
Bull landed a job at the Austin Community College Riverside campus, where he set up a 12-week canoe-building workshop. It was this class that served as the inspiration for “Bulwarks,” the canoe making workshop Bull now runs out of his garage. Open to anyone and hosted over two consectutive Saturdays, everyone walks out of Bulwarks with his or her very own 16-foot wooden canoe.
Standing in his garage, Bull talks excitedly about his next project, which is along the lines of a mini, wooden gondola. Shaped almost like a catamaran, the “skullcap,” as he calls it, features a spot for sculling and a deck for lounging. It’s only a quarter-sized model we’re looking at, but hearing him talk, it’s easy to imagine that a fleet of the full-sized versions will be floating down Lady Bird Lake very soon.
WHAT SORTS OF PEOPLE TAKE YOUR CLASS?
I’ve had all sorts of people … men, women, fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, uncles and nephews … just a whole array of different types of people from all walks of life. And almost all of them have had no experience whatsoever in boat building.
WHAT DOES A PERFECT DAY (OR A PERFECT MOMENT) LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
You know, I love playing soccer. I played for quite a long time when I was in England, and then I stopped playing in New York. When I came to Austin I met a whole soccer community, and I started playing again. Playing soccer just gives me a really cool, pleasant . Also, spending a lovely day out on the water, which I don’t do so much of, but when I do, it’s great.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BODY OF WATER?
Well, where I come from, the body of water that I grew up on is the Solent. Which is the mouth of the river that goes to Southampton. It’s a huge seaport, and I’ve always loved it. My wife comes from Newport , and we go up there often. I love that area … that water is beautiful, too. And the river down here has always appealed to me, Lake Austin. So I guess all of those, really.
DO YOU STILL PLAY MUSIC?
We play little get-togethers with our friends on the weekends. And I try to get out to see music at The Elephant Room as much as possible — it’s got a great jazz environment, which I really like.
IN ADDITION TO BOATS, YOU ALSO BUILD HOUSES. ANY FUTURE PLANS?
I’m close to retiring from building homes for other people, what I want to do is be able to set up a concession on the river and rent out to people the skullcap boat I’m working on, and that would help to sponsor the boat making school. Adam Pyrek, an architect, and I are working on the design together. I can’t wait.
THAT’S NOT A BAD WAY TO RETIRE…
That’s the thing isn’t it? I don’t want to do nothing … and even though I’ve done this before, I’ve always loved this.