Region Focus

2006

 

Spring 2006

Seasoned by the Seas

Boatbuilders continue to adapt to maritime markets and contribute to coastal economies in eastern North Carolina
By Charles Gerena

The Evolution of Carolina Boats

The earliest boats built in eastern North Carolina weren't mass-produced or based on fixed plans. Like other indigenous watercraft, they reflected the background and expertise of individual builders as well as local economic and environmental conditions, from the topography of the coastline to the availability of raw materials. Here are some examples.

Shad Boat
ORIGIN:
This sailboat was created by George Washington Creef from Roanoke Island in the mid-1870s. Its design spread throughout the Albemarle Sound region, responding to a need for a larger boat as fishing transitioned from a subsistence activity to a commercial operation.
DESIGN ELEMENTS: Structurally, the shad boat combined the features of the dugout log canoe used by American Indians with traditional wooden frame boats from England. The keel, or the spine of the vessel running lengthwise along the bottom, resembled a skinny dugout. Other features included a rounded bottom so that the boat could easily navigate shallow waters, a wide center to hold large catches of shad, and a tapered bow for smoother sailing.
OTHER ADVANTAGES: With few modifications, the shad boat was converted into a powered vessel. Local builders also angled the bottom to create a dead rise. This made the boat significantly cheaper to produce since builders could use lumber straight from a saw mill instead of having to cut curved frames.

Flatbottom Skiff
ORIGIN: The boat likely originated in the Northeast during the mid-1870s and spread rapidly throughout the country as wood planks from saw mills became readily available. Watermen in eastern North Carolina began using skiffs to haul pots along shallow tidal creeks.
DESIGN ELEMENTS: The flat bottom and shallow draft of the skiff's hull made it well-suited for shallow water. The boat was also stable, easy to propel, and displaced little additional water as it was loaded with fish. The skiff was pushed with a poling oar at first, then builders added a sail to its design so that it could enter deeper waters.
OTHER ADVANTAGES: With its bent plank sides and cross-planked bottom, the skiff required very little shaping of the planks. A competent house carpenter could build the boat quickly, easily, and inexpensively. Also, the skiff was simple to repair and cheap to replace.

Sharpie
ORIGIN: This two-masted sailboat originated in Long Island Sound in the early 1870s and was imported into North Carolina toward the end of the decade by businessmen like George Ives. He brought the sharpie to Beaufort to help him make money in the area's growing oyster industry. Its use spread quickly as builders modified its size and rigging for shellfishing and other commercial applications.
DESIGN ELEMENTS: The sharpie was quick, operated well in shallow water, and safely carried large loads. Later, its design made it suitable for substantial enlargement, enabling it to be used in large-scale oystering and general cargo transportation along the eastern Atlantic coast.
OTHER ADVANTAGES: The structure of the sharpie was similar to the skiff, making the boat quick, simple, and cheap to build, even for those without boatbuilding skills.

Core Sounder
ORIGIN: This motorized boat was developed in the first decade of the 1900s near the Core and Bogue Sounds of eastern North Carolina. Its use spread rapidly throughout the region because it was well-suited to the low-power engines available at the time.
DESIGN ELEMENTS: As the fishing industry embraced powered watercraft, local builders modified the sharpie so that its bow cut through the water better at higher speeds. They also gave it the framed bottom of a dead rise sailboat, which strengthened the hull and allowed for the use of more powerful engines. Later, designers in Harkers Island like Brady Lewis gave the bow a wider flare (the ancestor of the coveted "Carolina flare" in sport fishing boats), enabling the Core Sounder to speed through rough waters while keeping the captain dry. Also, its stern was rounded to keep sink nets from catching as fishermen pulled them out of the water.
OTHER ADVANTAGES: The versatile Core Sounder could navigate shoals, or raised banks of sand, and venture into deep-sea fishing grounds. Also, it was very adaptable to more powerful engines and improved hull forms for higher speed. The Core Sounder's design became the basis for boats built for charter fishing captains and recreational sportfishermen.

(Based on text provided by Paul Fontenoy, curator of maritime research and technology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, and supplemented with additional research. Photos courtesy of Maritime Museum.)

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