Saturday, May 9, 2015

NC Harker's Island, Cape Lookout, Willis Boat Works

     Welcome to Cape Lookout North Carolina.

     As we travel northward, this is the third of four major capes along the United States' mid-Atlantic seaboard.  Carved by eons of relentless pummeling sea and sky, the capes are tips of land that jut miles out into the Atlantic.

     Just off the shore of the capes, long islands, or "banks" as they are called here, form one grain of sand at a time.  Competing ocean currents and powerful winds simultaneously build them and try to tear them apart.   

     When a plant, usually sea oats here, establishes a foothold, it allow that area to collect a bit more sand, eventually becoming a dune.

     A park sign gives a view of the junction of two of these long banks that form what is known as Cape Lookout.  

     The bank that runs north-south (to the left in this photo) is Core Bank, the name derived from the Coree Indians who populated this area prior to the arrival of the English.  Running East and West is Shackleford Bank, smaller in size but with more substantial dunes.  Here, differences in elevation are measured in inches rather than feet.

     Unseen in these photos but more substantial are the shoals - banks of sand that lurk just beneath the waves and extend as far as twenty miles out into the Atlantic.  Mapping them is a losing proposition as they move so often and so rapidly that any map quickly becomes irrelevant.

     Sailors would follow a cold southern running current that hugs the shore, known as the Labrador Current.  Just a few miles out runs the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water northward.  The differences in temperature and the opposing forces of the currents makes for volatile waters.  Add unpredictable sand bars to that equation and it is a recipe for disaster.  And it has lived up to that billing time after time - so many ships have succumbed to these forces that this area is known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic."  Maps that show known shipwrecks denote hundreds of major ships that have sunk here over the last few centuries.

     Sometimes the winds and the currents currents don't sink the ships - they simply toss them ashore as though they have been found unfit to call the ocean home.

     Sometimes they are tossed further ashore than others.

     The way the capes lean out to sea is like a boxer leading with his jaw - a prime opportunity for the frequent storms that begin down in the Caribbean and work their way up through the Atlantic Ocean to deliver knock-out punches.   

     Core Bank and Shackleford Bank almost meet, and create the rim that encompasses a large area of slightly calmer water known as Core Sound.  Just inside the sound lies an island whose written history runs back to the 1500's - Harkers Island NC.

          It wasn't until the mid 1900's that a bridge was run to this island, leading to the development of a distinct baroge, or dialect of  English that many of the islanders still speak.

     A few unique words I came across in my few days here - "Pizer" means porch, probably from the old Spanish word Piazza.  A "Hoi Tider" is someone from this area.  To be "Mommicked" is to be totally beaten down, "Yethy" is something quite unpleasant, and a "Dingbatter" is anyone who isn't a "Hoi Tider."

     It is not easy to carve a life out of the sea.  I sat in the library of the local museum reading written accounts of the locals capturing a whale in the 1600's.  Six rowboats with five men in each boat went out after a whale that was spotted.  

    Time after time they sank harpoons in it without scoring a kill shot to the lungs.  The whale drug the boats for many miles, smashing one of the boats with its tail.  Finally someone got a spear into its lung and the fight was shortly over.  

     Now the remaining five boats had to drag the carcass back to land, which by now was not even visible.  But they were successful, and the island had much meat to eat and oil to light the lanterns for the remainder of that year.

     It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that certainly holds true here.  Isolated from land and needing the ability to feed themselves, the islanders learned to build their own boats.  This developed into a local industry, with some folks becoming professional boat builders.  Although it has fallen a long way from its peak in the mid 1900's, a few remnants of this industry still survive.

     Meet AJ and his father Alex Willis, third and fourth generation boat builders.

AJ and Alex Willis

     AJ's great-grandfather built boats back in the days that there was no bridge to the mainland.  Lumber had to either be barged in from the mainland or you had to cut your own. 

     Back in the early 1900's people would come over from the mainland just to see all the boats people had under construction in their front yards it seems most of the fishermen also knew how to construct their own craft.  But as the industry grew the need for larger boats emerged, and Lloyd was a professional boat builder.

        His son, Brady, carried on and expanded on what he had learned from Lloyd.  

      Alex started working with his father and grandfather in the evenings when he was seven years old - at fifteen he left school and began working full time as a boat builder.

     When Alex grew up, all of the boat builders would race their latest project on Sunday afternoons.  One Sunday, Alex raced a boat he had built and beat his grandfather.  His grandfather drove his boat straight up on shore, tore out the engine and the props and by the next Sunday was ready to race his grandson again.

     But this time he pushed the boat so hard that the propellor spun off the shaft - so Alex beat his grandfather two weeks in a row.

     By this time, a bridge connected to the mainland and lumber was more readily available as this model in a local gift shop depicts.

     The boats started getting bigger, so the sheds to build them had to get bigger.  The boats had to be launched too, so the facilities were built with rails that ran down into the water.

     Today AJ and Alex have a couple of facilities around the island - this shop is the "home" shop.

     Brady Lewis is renowned in these parts as the inventor of the "Carolina Flare."  You see, the wave energy in these waters is the highest of anywhere on the Atlantic coast of North America, and the choppy waters were terribly hard on boats and those who operated them.  The flare helped both the boat and the crews.  Here is a boat without the flare - 

      And here is one of the first boats he built with the flare, restored and on display at the local museum.

     See the bulge in the side of the boat as you near the front?

    This is the flare.  As waves strike the front of the boat, it pushes the water away and keeps the boat much more stable.  Water washing over the decks has long been a big hazard for mariners. 

      As its desirability was established, demand it has grown over the years.  It comes at the expense of some hull space in the front of the boat, but when it comes to trying to operate in rough waters is can literally be a life-saver.

     As demand for it has grown, the size of the flare has grown.  Here is one of the current projects the Willis's are building - look at how extreme the flare has grown.

     To give an idea of the size of the boats they build now, here is a photo of AJ working beneath this one in progress.

     As the local fishing industry has fallen to imported seafood, the demand for the big working boats has fallen.  These days the clients are different - big money folks wanting luxury yachts outfitted with teak, granite and brass.

    Alex and AJ still build these boats the way they were taught - a full hand built wooden frame.  Here is the keel laid and the skeleton forming on one they previously built.

     After the frame is built, the outside of the hull is put one - one slat of wood at a time.

     After the hull is built, the exterior is fiberglassed which gives it the water-seal and protects the wood from parasites and rotting.
Then the interior has to be finished.  This is like building a house with all of the floors, walls, ceilings, closets, kitchen, bathrooms and showers, plumbing and electrical work - and each piece of it is an odd shape and has to fit perfectly.  A house doesn't get regularly dropped twenty or thirty feet and smashed into salt water - these vessels do.


     This boat has twin engines installed - two big C-32 Caterpillars.  And I mean big - those engines stand about seven feet high on their mounts.  These are 1600 horsepower engines that cost $300,000.  A big electrical generator will also be added to this compartment.

     The Marine environment is hostile - everything is heavy duty and made from materials that will hold out against the constant pounding, resist the decay of the salt and ward off attack by worms, barnacles and mosses.

     After finishing the cabins and the wheel house, most of them have additional bridges added to give additional visibility at sea.

     These boats are so tall that they cannot be finished until they are in the water.  Here is one mostly completed that they recently moved across the island to launch.  The electric company goes along with them, turning off the electricity at each transformer so that they can lift the power lines up and over the boat.

     The Willis's build the entire boat with the exception of two things - they bring in subcontractors to do the plumbing and they bring in specialists to wire up all the electronics.  Between satellite and radar systems these boats are getting quite complex.
      What does it take for a boat like the one they are building?  Well, depending on the boat about 15,000 hours of labor and $ 2.750,000 to get it done.  These boats today are not your great-granddad's fishing trawler.

     Just as imported seafood is killing American fisheries, the boat building business has been moving to other countries as well.

     American ingenuity has come up with the CNC systems - computerized equipment that runs machines that cut out the parts that make up the boats.  Building a boat today has become more like putting together a giant jig-saw puzzle, and the days of having an actual wooden rib-cage are going fast.  Now they are mostly a shell of plywood with cross sections also made of plywood. 

     Since they have become easier to make, other countries with cheap labor now assemble cookie-cutter pieces while the skilled trades that established the business slowly die out.  

     In fact if it were not for these few custom built yachts being built each year, on Harkers Island this trade would already be lost.

     One of the other boat builders on the island is Billy Dupree.

     Locals can tell which particular small town each is from from the slight variations in their speech patterns.  And you can look at boats and tell which boat builder made them.  Billy is a local who benefitted from tutelage by the Wilson's and struck out on his own.

     "You have to be able to do it all to survive now" says Billy.  "If you can't sit down with a person and work out 72 month terms on a boat right there at the table, you aren't going to make any sales.  The few of us left - we are all that remain of this craft and those that can do it are steadily leaving us.  Who knows if any of this will remain in a few years?

      That brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd" photo -

     The lookout man on this model boat in the local museum.

And today's parting shot - 

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Have an awesome day !!

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