Excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation along the Saugatuck River on Wednesday afternoon as more than 50 elementary school children from Camp Gan Israel got ready to venture into open water -- in humble vessels they assembled themselves.

No deeper than 12 inches, some of the youngsters, ages 7 to 11, admitted to being a little nervous as they rowed away from the boat ramp. But there was no need to worry. The boats proved positively buoyant.

"It was scary and surprisingly fun," said 8-year-old Isabelle Katz, a soon-to-be third-grader at Long Lots Elementary School.

"It was awesome," added Samara Cohen, a fellow Long Lots third-grader. The boat building took place two weeks ago at Coleytown Elementary School, led by Curtis Tucker, founder of Kids Aboard Workshops in Ocean Park, Fla.

Eight-year-old Maya Kallins said the best part of the boat-building exercise was "learning how to use a power drill."

After a base coat of paint was applied to the four boats to waterproof them, the children then had to wait for the right day to head out to the river.

Before they left shore Wednesday around 2 p.m., Rabbi Yehuda Kantor was invited to give his blessing.

"You should come back the same way as you came," he said, smiling. The children weren't merely passengers. They both paddled and piloted their vessels. Most were also accompanied by a counselor who also paddled, but one brave junior counselor got into a boat sans paddle, confident enough her campers had been adequately trained by Tucker minutes earlier.

Tucker said boat-building is an old-fashioned "work type of project in which they experience good communication and hard work, a project that doesn't involve technology and computers."

Camp Gan Director Dina Kantor added, "It was incredible teamwork that was taking place, kids working together to make something from nothing. It gave them a tremendous sense of teamwork, bonding, satisfaction and empowerment, as far as what they can do."

Tucker said children are filled with pride when the boats they built hit the water.

"You see it in their eyes and their stature," he said. "That feeling of, `Look at what we did. This is real.' It's really a good self-esteem-building project."

While Camp Gan, like many other summer camps, offers swimming, horseback riding, tennis, archery, theater and other activities, Kantor said it's the special activities each week, like the boat building, and performing at the Quick Center for the Arts at Fairfield University last week, for example, that will make campers recall their summers with fondness years from now.

"These things are life memories, things that don't happen every day," she said. "Camp is such a big part of childhood memories and it's these unique opportunities that don't come around every day that really leave an impact on children."

Camp Gan Israel, for campers ages 2 to 11, is based at Coleytown Elementary School. Its season ends Aug. 5. For more information, log onto http://www.ganisrael.com or call 203-226-8584.