I live along the Albemarle Sound — a region where water and land merge. Aerial views of the area reveal an intricate network of serpentine rivers and trunk estuaries. Waterways used to be the highways of the region so naturally, boats were an integral part of the culture. Wood skiffs with their shallow drafts were ideal for navigating skinny creeks and lazy rivers with depthless waters. These flat-bottom boats could be rowed, paddled or poled.
The expansive sounds of the region were relatively shallow but exposed so they were vulnerable to high winds. A number of historic boats were modified so that their designs were well suited to handle the shallow waters, shoals and weather conditions of the sounds. Some of these vessels were work boats or seine boats and eventually customized into Shad Boats. In the late 1800’s, George Washington Creef of Roanoke Island built the first shad boat in North Carolina.
The Albemarle Shad Boat was a traditional fishing boat known for being stable, able, strong and seaworthy. They were also capable of carrying large loads of herring or shad. In 1987, the NC General Assembly designated it as the North Carolina State Boat. Visitors to the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum can learn more about the region’s wooden boat heritage and view a shad boat on display at the center located in Manteo, NC.
The versatile Core Sounder was another original shallow water wooden work boat indigenous to the coast of North Carolina. These classic “sinknetter” fishing boats of the Core Sound region were used for trawling and long haul fishing. Wood was the material of choice for work boats and pleasure crafts before the advent of molded fiberglass.
Signature, Style & Grace
Another legendary pleasure boat with Tar Heel roots was the Simmons Sea Skiff. In the late 1940’s, Tom “Sims” Simmons was commissioned to build a fishing boat with a dory-like hull which could be launched off the beach and have room in the back for hundreds of yards of fishing net. His hybrid creation evolved into a very clever and stylish skiff that didn’t sink in the surf with its heavy payload. A few subsequent designs later, Simmons introduced a motor well and a high “raked” transom. Other modifications included a V-shaped bottom and longer and wider designs. The Simmons skiff quickly garnered a reputation and his business flourished in the mid-fifties. Today, the highly sought after rigs continue to steal the show at wooden boat shows across the east coast!
Simmons’ boats were originally built of Atlantic Cedar with mahogany framing. Later, Simmons started using Douglass fir plywood for planking. One of his signature features was the closely spaced bronze ring nails that fastened the planking. His joints along the planking were so tight that he never used glue or caulk to seal the wood. Another material he never used was fiberglass.
Wooden Boat Revival
The manufacturing of fiberglass along with other manmade materials in the mid 20th Century dramatically changed the culture of boatbuilding. Molded composite fiberglass materials allowed companies to mass-produce boats of all shapes and sizes. The cost of building boats was greatly reduced. This turned out well for pleasure boaters but wooden boatbuilding soon became a lost craft.
Fortunately for those of us who love the feel of wood on water, there has been a rebirth in both wooden boat construction and restoration over the past twenty years. Fairly recent technology and materials have spearheaded this back-to-wood revolution. Epoxy adhesives and urethane coatings have helped revolutionize the marine paint industry providing a more convenient and longer-lasting alternative to traditional paint and varnish maintenance. Marine-grade plywood, durable caulk and adhesives offer additional methods and alternative wood boatbuilding options.
For some boaters, wood might be considered artsy but it has also proven to be strong, durable and lightweight. Plus, it does not fatigue like manufactured materials. Its bending qualities allow for smooth and attractive form.
Boatbuilding may be a tradition and way of life for others but it can also be practical. Sure it may take more time in its artisan-like construction but most people with some woodworking basics can build a simple design in a relatively small space and with limited tools. In other words, build at a level suitable for your skill set and for the simple pleasure of the craft. At a recent boat show demo in Wilmington, I watched a craftsman and a 15-year old girl build the hull of a 12’ wooden dinghy in less than four hours.
Living Reminders of a Rich Boating Heritage
I’ve talked to various wooden boat craftsmen and women who describe the building process as a love of labor while others admit that it’s more of a partnership with nature. Others confess that they gain a better appreciation for natural materials. One young student at Cape Fear Community College’s Boatbuilding School recently admitted that he “feels the history of the wood and the boat” whenever he’s working on a restoration project. A geometry of shapes, organized chaos and a rough draft still guide the modern day boatbuilder. And like their predecessors before them, some builders continue to build without plans and painstakingly puzzle together form into fashion.
Carolina Wooden Boat Shows – Bucket List
One of the best ways to get your own “feel” of wooden boats is to attend a classic or wooden boat show. Wooden boat owners are more than happy to share their stories and their personal relationships with wood, boats, restoration and the craft of constructing a boat. It’s also the perfect opportunity to learn more about the history and to develop a field guide knowledge about traditional boats. Some shows offer free rides and others have even have boats for sale. Regardless of the exhibit, there are plenty of family-friendly activities that accompany each show. Here’s a Carolina sampler of wooden boat shows and festivals along our coast. We also threw in a couple more outside the state to add to your maritime bucket list. Visit one of these maritime villages, get outside this summer and enjoy the timelessness of wooden boats.
Cape Fear Community College Riverfront Wooden Boat Show
April 1, 2017
9:30am – 4:30pm
Although this year’s show has already passed, mark it down on your calendar for 2018. Held along Wilmington’s Cape Fear Riverwalk, the event includes 10 judging categories plus a special category for Simmons Sea Skiff awards. Come watch craftsmen and women demonstrate their craft, tour the college’s boatbuilding shop and enjoy a full day of wooden boat memorabilia. More info.
43rd Annual Wooden Boat Show
Saturday, May 6, 2017
10am – 4pm
The Southeast Tourism Society chose the oldest, continuously run wooden boat show in the Southeast as a “Top 20 Event” for May 2017. It is held along the Beaufort waterfront and includes the Carolina Maritime Model Expo, In-Water Boat Show, Wooden Boat Kids, and more! Free admission. Click here for more info and registration.
North Carolina’s Premier Antique and Classic Boat Show
New Bern, NC
Saturday, May 20, 2017
9am – 3pm
Come out to New Bern’s beautiful waterfront and enjoy the on-water “full-throttle” exhibition on the Neuse and Trent Rivers. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle Chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society presents the event. The organization encourages first-hand experiences so some boats are available for free public rides. Check out the storyboards and educational displays to learn more about period boating, accessories and boating apparel. Visitors may vote on the People’s Choice Awards. The chapter provides a scholarship for the Cape Fear Community College’s Boatbuilding Program to help preserve this craft. Preliminary and post event activities for registered boat owners. Overnight docking is available at the show site. More info.
19th Annual Music & Water Festival
June 2 & 3, 2017
Local wooden boat owners and builders share their skiffs, sailboats, dinghies and works-in-progress along Edenton’s historic waterfront on Saturday, June 3 from 10am-6pm. The on-land exhibition is part of the 2-day festival which includes a Friday evening sunset paddle, music in the park, paddle sport demos, arts and crafts, and more! Click here for more info and boat registration.
Southport 8th Annual Wooden Boat Show
Saturday, September 30, 2017
10am – 4pm
The popular wooden boat show is held at the Old Yacht Basin and features both in-water and on land exhibitions. Visitors can meet and talk with wooden boatbuilders and owners. Boats will be judged on several categories from Best of Simmons to People’s Choice awards.
Additional events and exhibits include children activities; nautical displays; talks and demonstrations; maritime vendors and the award winning seafood chowder at the Taste of Cape Fear Tent.
Be sure to pick up one of the event’s beautiful t-shirts and a collector’s edition poster.
Click here for more info or to register a boat. Registration deadline: Wednesday, September 1.
Roanoke Island Maritime Museum Wooden Boat Show
Saturday, October 28
9:00am – 5:00pm
The 6th annual event features new and restored wooden boats. The boats are displayed in the Creef Boathouse and Park, and in the water at the Roanoke Marshes lighthouse docks. Click here for more information and registration.
Out of State Wooden Boat Show Bucket List
Celebrate Father’s Day Weekend with a nostalgic tribute to the region’s treasured maritime history. Wooden classics, vintage race boats and Chesapeake Bay-related boats are displayed at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum for the 29th annual Antique & Classic Boat Festival and the Arts in St. Michaels, MD. The event is hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the Antique & Classic Boat Society. More info.
Georgetown 29th Annual Wooden Boat Show
October 27 & 28, 2017
The low country’s premier wooden boat show features more than 140 classic wooden boats ranging in size from kayaks to yachts. Boats will be displayed in the water and on land along Front Street. Visitors will have the opportunity to meet and talk to wooden boat craftsmen, manufacturers, and owners. Weekend activities include a Friday regatta, boatbuilding contest, kids’ model boatbuilding, knot tying contests and maritime art and crafts. Music, food, beer garden and lots more! Click here for a complete schedule.