Every summer, 20 lucky teenagers descend on the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vermont, for an experience that inevitably changes their lives: the Champlain Discovery Program. They start out as average scrawny 13- to 16-year-olds from a variety of backgrounds who aren’t totally sure how they feel about being away from their families for five weeks. They return as muscled, tanned, more self-assured young adults with paddling skills, a sparkle in their eyes, and a willingness to get up in the morning and take charge. They’re also the proud owners of 17-foot wooden kayaks they built themselves.

Champlain Discovery was founded by Nick Patch in 1994. Patch, a master boatbuilder who was hungry to use his skills for something “useful,” turned his attention to teens. Given the green light to implement his idea at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Patch developed the program, which has been running consistently and with only minor tweaks for the past 10 years.

For the first three weeks of the five-week camp, each participant builds a Chesapeake Light Craft stitch-and-glue kayak, with breaks to learn leave-no-trace camping, nautical skills, paddling strokes, wet exits, and even how to roll. After finishing their boats, students paint them in a riot of themes and colors. Then comes the moment of truth, the launch. With boats afloat, students focus for the next three days on refining their paddling and group skills, adding deck rigging, fine-tuning seat adjustments, and learning how to pack for a two-week trip. Then they set sail.

Ten new sailors and three trip leaders captain their boats on a 12-day maiden voyage from Whitehall, New York, Lake Champlain’s southern terminus, to Burlington, Vermont, more than 65 miles away. The group camps in remote locations, performs community service, refines social and nautical skills, and forgoes showers.

When Discovery participants apply for the program, their reasons range from wanting to have fun and make friends to fascination with the idea of building their own navigable craft. Says Patch, “My goal is not to turn out boatbuilders, but to help these kids learn skills that will make them stronger, more self-assured people: leadership, teamwork, belief in their own ability, and the often-overlooked skill of being able to cooperate with others who may have different opinions.”

“It’s the reason I come back each year,” says longtime Discovery Program instructor Angela Gibbons. “This program goes way beyond building kayaks. It’s about building kids.”