Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By

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Work Boat Building

Parallel with shipbuilding, specialized work boat designs were developed to serve other sectors of water transportation. Sometimes adapted from existing designs, at times brought in from other coastal locations, developed in collaboration with working fishermen – or by the fishermen themselves, these work boats were excellent examples of the synergistic interaction of imagination, practical design skill, workmanship, and local needs and cultural norms.

The earliest work boats were probably those associated with whaling, which arose earlier than the other species-specific fishing industries. The Simpsons’ history of whaling on the coast highlights Shackleford boatbuilder Devine S. Guthrie, who built his six-man, twenty- to twenty-five foot, double-ended lapstrake boats, high in the bow and stern, from local timber – a design traceable to fourteenth century Basque shore whalers.90 Allford’s recent booklet on coastal work boats says that experimentation with their forms began as early as the mid-1870s.91

In the nineteenth century, as Mark Taylor recounts, three adaptive work boat types evolved that “evolved in or had have strong links to North Carolina coastal waters”: the sharpie, the shad boat, and the spritsail skiff.92

The sharpie is characterized by seaworthiness, large cargo capacity, open work area, and shallow draft. It was introduced into the Outer Banks area by Rhode Islander George Ives in 1875, who knew them through their widespread use on Long Island. Initially skeptical, Banker fishermen quickly took a liking to them after a sharpie bested their traditional boats in a race, and by 1880 there were more than 500 of them in use.93 Characterized by a plumb stem, straight sides, flat bottom, and rounded, half-decked stern, the boats usually were two-masted, spritsail craft which, because they lack a low-swinging boom, offers ample headroom. An inexpensive, solid, durable model could be built quickly from local pine, oak, cypress or white cedar. They ranged from twenty-six to thirty-six feet, were crewed by one or two men, and were used for either oystering or fishing.

By modifying the traditional sharpie with more powerful double-masted, gaff-rigged main and topsails usually used on schooners, the boats could adequately pull heavy iron oyster dredges. In such a configuration they were known as schooner-sharpies or “Core Sounders,” which could range up to forty-five feet long. The largest, at sixty-three feet, was built in Beaufort in 1899. Some were even used to haul fish to the West Indies, returning laden with sugar, molasses and rum.94 By the 1930s, Alford reports, most of the sailing sharpies had disappeared or been fitted with engines. Many converted sharpies ended up in Florida or the Bahamas.95

Core sounder boats came to prominence as that of the sharpies waned. Narrow, low-rise, round-sterned boats of thirty-six to forty feet, originally with small engines, they were well suited to sink-net fishing. [ILLUSTRATION: Core sounder work boat Alford p15. CAPTION: Fig. 4-22: Core Sounder Work Boat. Alford, Traditional Work Boats of North Carolina, 15.]

Round-bottom shad boats are traceable in design back to dugout canoes used by coastal Indians. [ILLUSTRATION: John White drawing – making boats.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 4-23: De Bry Engraving of John White Drawing: The Manner of Makinge Their Boates (1585-86). British Museum.] Early settlers modified them to have broader bottoms, keels, and ribs. In that form, they were called kunners.96

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, logs suitable for such boats had become scarce, and boats constructed in such a manner were not able to do the work required. In the 1870s, Roanoke Island builder Washington Creef, working off the kunner prototype and aiming to come up with a shallow-drafted, relatively small (under twenty-seven feet), seaworthy boat that could haul heavy loads from pound nets with a large spritsail and flying topsail suitable for light summer breezes, came up with what came to be known as the shad boat. In the 1920s, a v-bottom, deadrise form of the shad boat replaced the older round-bottom style.97

Modifications to the shad boat design around the turn of the twentieth century made them attractive to waterfowl hunting clubs on the Banks, which bought many of them. Their great speed also made them attractive to rum runners during Prohibition. Stick reports that they have also been used extensively by commercial waterfowl hunters.98 With engines installed, a few remaining shad boats were still in use in the 1980s by Manteo-based commercial fishermen. In 1987 it was designated by the state legislature as the official North Carolina State Historical Boat.

The small spritsail skiff was only sixteen to twenty-two feet long, but it was the “mule” of coastal clammers, oystermen, crabbers, and fishermen. Equipped with a centerboard but no keel, it drew only four to six inches of water with the centerboard up, but even with several fishermen and a large net aboard it could haul several thousand pounds of fish or shellfish. Examples of working spritsail skiffs have virtually disappeared in recent decades, but renewed interest in traditional boats has led to a revival of the design for recreational use.99

A highly functional Harkers Island boat design emerged in the 1920s, partly in response to the tendency of the traditional flat-bottomed sharpies to snake and vibrate when converted to gasoline or diesel power in the late teens. The Harkers Island design emerged from combining other functional aspects of sharpies with engine power and the “Harkers Island [or Carolina] flare” that threw water away from the hull at high speeds. The first such boat is usually credited to Bogue Sound vessel repairman Brady Lewis, who relocated to Harkers Island in 1926. Harkers Island boats are used for trawling, shrimping, dredging and recreational fishing.100

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