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Maritime Masterpiece

Harkers Island, N.C., is the land of backyard boatbuilders.

October 4, 2007
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On the Eastern Seaboard between Annapolis and Ft. Lauderdale, Beaufort, North Carolina, is yachting central. If you haven’t yet been, its attractions will be obvious the moment you set anchor in Taylor Creek.

The water looks a clear bottle green. Wild horses graze on the barrier island, sheltered from the sea breeze. Stately sea captains’ mansions and Bahamian-inspired cottages grace downtown Front Street on the opposite shore, where the town’s history unfolds in more than 100 plaqued house fronts, preserved public buildings and a doctor’s office complete with leeches.

You can purchase a new GPS, an antique ship’s wheel and The New York Times within walking distance of the dock, “borrow a car from a friendly full-service marina, or tie up at a restaurant and order “stuffed trigger fish mexical”. At the hub of it all, where no yachtsman can miss it, is the North Carolina Maritime Museum, inside which five centuries of Carolina nautica are lovingly restored and displayed.

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As if that weren’t enough, these waters are rich in maritime treasures you can explore under your own power. On a recent layover, I did my exploring in Bob and Mary Simpson’s 36-foot Sharpie-styled sink-netter, christened Sylvia with a bottle of clam juice in the Prohibition year 1933.

When Sylvia leaves her berth on Golden Pond for Bogue Sound, you can feel why the Long Island Sharpie took hold on the Outer Banks and remains a favorite today. Her easy-riding hull knifes with a fair lift through the chop created by surrounding capes and shoals. The low freeboard and overhanging stern, once a kindly platform to work from, make her a fun boat to play from today.

The banks here run east-west past Beaufort Inlet until the entrance to Core Sound. The shore to our south is Shacklesford Bank, where the traditions of the Carolina watermen began. The first settlers lived in tents near where diamond-patterned Cape Lookout lighthouse stands now. They built boats from the canopies of live oak, holly, wax myrtle and cedar that once grew here, and harvested the Right Whale (“the right whale to catch”) because it yielded more oil and baleen than any other. You can still see a few graveyards and shards of pottery marking their village on the Sound side, and descendants of their horses running wild on the beach. It must have been Eden on a stellar June day. Then, after one hurricane too many wiped out their settlement for good, the Willises, Gillikens and other first families of Carteret County snaked their homes and cattle onto boats and floated them to mainland Morehead.

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“Where ya headed?” someone hailed from shore.

“We’re the Children of Israel headin’ for the Promised Land,” came the reply.

So their Morehead neighborhood has been called ever since. But these early watermen left more than a place name. After whaling died out, their descendants started North Carolina’s largest industry: charter sportfishing. William Riley Willis, known as “Just Right in the trade, built Sylvia in that era. The descendants were designers, builders and captains. Set your waypoint for Harkers Island, east of Beaufort, and you’ll discover them at it still-turning out masterpieces of dead-rise construction in one of America’s most unusual backwaters.

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Flanking the inner passage of Core Sound along Cape Lookout National Seashore, Harkers Island at first glance looks unremarkable: weathered waterfront cottages, a modest restaurant or two, and stretches of marsh and wind-sculpted trees forever dwarfed by salt and wind. Then your eyesight adjusts and you start noticing things. A dozen or more house fronts advertise decoy carvings, a local pastime dating from Coree Indian days. A trawler frame rises like a whale from a sea of grass. You happen on a shingled out-building where Houston and Jamie Lewis barely remark on your presence as they sand a cabin sole on one boat and frame another for their nationwide clientele. A local gives you directions, not in a Southern twang but in the full brogue of his ancestors who shipwrecked here from Scotland.

They don’t call Harkers Island the land of backyard boatbuilders for nothing. If there’s an open sandlot, you’ll probably find a project under way. But “backyard” doesn’t do justice to the workmanship of the handful of master builders remaining out of the 300 who once worked here. If your thoughts turn to trawlers cruising in shallow waters, Harkers may be the place to build your next yacht. On the other hand, if you are inclined to one foot instead of 50, go see J.A. Rose.

From white tupelo, black walnut, cypress, sandalwood and gum, with never a blueprint or plan, James Rose has crafted a hundred models of Carolina vernacular watercraft in his shop at the edge of Core Sound.

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“I come from a long line of wood butchers,” he says as he dusts off his apron and invites us in for tea.

Rose, who won a North Carolina Heritage award for his preservation of maritime history, built full-size boats until arthritis ruined his knees.

“Building boats was just a natural thing to do, being surrounded by water, he says. He built his first model, “the U.S. Constitution sailing with a bone in her mouth in a green Nor’easter, in grade school.” Now, models cover the walls, floors and photo albums of his living room, showroom and shop.

He holds up a replica 18th century commercial galley: “These were masterpiece boats measured out with sticks and built with primitive tools.”

Pointing to a shad boat, invented in 1860 by native son George Washington Creef: “Uncle Wash took those lines from the English round-bottomed dinghies of the 1500s. Did you know today’s sailboat dinghy is based on that design?

“What’s that one?” I ask of a model reminiscent of Sylvia.

“A Core Sound Flat-Bottomed Round Stern Inverted Raked Sharpie”, Rose says. “They came out in the 1890s but didn’t work so well on the larger ships.”

Of a flat-bottomed sprit sail rig: “My dad had one of those. One day we went out in it and the wind breezed up to 30 knots. The mast broke, but we scudded home on the sprit. I wouldn’t be alive today without it.”

After a few hours on Harkers Island, the anchorage in nearby Beaufort seems a world away. I could kill for a rare tuna steak and a Bloody Mary, for restaurants on Harkers are few and far between.

But oh, those boats. Now I know one more reason every snowbird on the Intracoastal flocks to Beaufort. And why some of them never leave.

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