Preserving the history of rack-of-the-eye boat building is more than documenting a way of building boats; it also preserves a way of life.
The Florence Mae, built by Harkers Island native Heber Guthrie for for the NC Coastal Heritage Association, is almost finished. It will travel to schools and functions all across the state as a tangible example of rack-of-the-eye boatbuilding. One of the two main industries that set Harkers Island apart from the rest of the world has almost disappeared as a full time career for Down East natives. The Frances Mae will also travel the ICW annually from the Dismal Swamp to Southport with pre-scheduled stops at towns and villages along the way. Residents can board her and examine photo documentation of how she was constructed using methods passed down through centuries.
But, she needs help before she can be launched. About half of the funds have been raised to purchase an engine. Please donate to NCCHA by visiting the donate page of this website or mailing a donation to NCCHA
3325 Hwy. 306
South Grantsboro, NC
A man with a complete set of blueprints he purchased for a boat met with a Down East boat builder. Looking at the detailed plans, the boat builder said, “I’m sorry. I never built a boat like that. I wouldn’t even know how to start.”
When the man closed the book of plans, the boat builder saw a picture of the boat on the cover. He blurted out, “Now, I can build that boat.”
For centuries, Down East fishermen have built boats in their yards. Aaron Styron from Cedar Island said that in the early 20th century, a boat was under construction in almost every yard around Core Sound. Over time, many fishermen discovered they preferred building fishing boats over fishing. A separate industry was born.
Passed down through the ages, rack-of-the-eye boat building, no blueprints, no detailed plans, became standard. Jamie Lewis, 78, started building boats with his father when he was 15, eyeballing the lines of skiffs, large trawlers, and sleek recreational fishing boats. Lewis explains, “When a man tells me what he wants, what he’s going to do with it, where he’s going to use it, and how big he wants it, I just start picturing it in my head and go from there.”
The late James Allen Rose, when starting construction of a new boat, reported that he would often draw a sketch of the boat on a brown paper bag at the kitchen table. As each board is fitted to the one next to it, measurements are recorded on a story pole, a scrap piece of wood. Specific design elements evolve in the building process to accommodate the primary functions of the boat under the conditions it will most likely to encounter. As Heber Guthrie said, “Through the generations, boat builders have learned through experience what works and what doesn’t. And different communities have created different styles, like the flared bow is mostly a Harkers Island tradition.”
Today, factory-made fiberglass vessels and the decline in commercial fishing have severely diminished an industry that once played a major role in defining the cultural heritage of the coast.
To preserve both the art and technology of rack-of-the-eye boat building, NCCHA is sponsoring the construction of a Core Sound workboat to appear in parades, flotillas, and static displays for festivals and similar events. Not a replica or a museum piece, it is a 21 ft. work boat whose construction has included some of the oldest known rack-of-the-eye techniques. The only contemporary elements involved are glues and epoxy resins. The hull is strip planking.
Slated for completion in early March, 2017, Heber Guthrie is building it in Marshallburg. Generous donations have made it possible for NCCHA to create this tangible record of coastal heritage. Though nearing completion, approximately $2,500 more must be raised before the boat can be launched. Please consider visiting the Donate page to help with a tax deductible gift.
Recent gifts to this project: The Pamlico News has donated a Teleflex steering head for the Frances Mae. Dennis Chadwick donated the fuel intake port, Doug Cahoon donated the engine bracket, Rusty Daniels is providing labor to install the windows, and Barbara and Jim Pearson donated the fuel tank. Their names, along with the other donors, will go on the dedication plaque in the cabin .
Construction of the Frances Mae has a red day marker to starboard. Learn more. Please visit bencaseyphotos.com.