Building a workboat to be a traveling classroom

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 Frances 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.

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 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.

New generation of boatbuilding aficionados

“Heber, why don’t you get something going in the summer for kids that have nothing to do but ride around and get in trouble? My 3 kids stay home all day, every day, and just watch TV all day.”
~ Parent from Marshallburg, NC

Heber Guthrie grew up in a Harkers Island boat building family. Heber learned the trade, and has been building boats since he was a teenager. Over the course of four decades Guthrie has built 97 boats.

When he isn’t building a boat, Heber is the go-to person for innovative projects in Down East communities. For Boy Scouts, he once choreographed a re-enactment of delivering the news to Harkers Island from the mainland that the colonies had declared independence.

Guthrie has been volunteering in the seventh grade technology classes at Down East Middle School in Smyrna. He and the technology instructor, Richard Coffey, have guided students to employ design and modeling skills in real world applications. Heber says, “This kind of work teaches children the characteristics of wood and how to shape it for functional designs. Utilizing rack-of-the-eye methods, students learn that 10% of the work is by eye, but 90% is measuring and figuring to transform vision into reality.”

Responding to the parent’s plea for a summer program to transform idle hands into productivity, he has developed a syllabus for a series of week-long summer camps. Campers will undertake rack-of-the-eye boat building techniques, sharpening mathematical skills, learning to work with tools, and developing a vision of a completed boat from generalized directions, not with blueprints.

Richard Coffey noted, “Students are learning that technology is not replacing an iconic tradition of the area, but is instead, enhancing that tradition.”

The Summer Youth Boat Building Camps in Marshallburg will not necessarily train boatbuilders, though that is a distinct possibility. Instead, they seek to steer youth away from summer idleness into constructive learning experiences designed to develop self-motivation. The camps will focus on teamwork, learning more about an integral part of Down East cultural heritage, and combining classroom textbook knowledge with hands-on skills. When completed, the participants will have tangible evidence of their efforts, not a grade on a test, but a wooden boat.

They will have experienced using technology to maintain a cultural tradition, not replace it.

Campers from beyond the borders of Down East Carteret County are welcome. Special camps can be arranged for scouting, church, and school groups. Please visit the Donate page to help purchase wood, small tools, epoxy resins and other materials.

Development of specific eligibility requirements and other parameters will be completed by January, 2017. To learn more, contact Heber Guthrie, 252-725-8322,

Scouts Inaugurate Summer Boatbuilding Camps

Twelve Boy Scouts and 4 scout leaders from the Knightdale area of Eastern Wake County camped in a grassy field on Poly Hill Road in Marshallberg, July 24 – 27. They were participating in the NC Coastal Heritage Association’s first summer boat building camp under the direction and tutelage of Heber Guthrie. Guthrie, a Harkers Island native now living in nearby Gloucester, led the scouts in what was for most a first-time experience using power tools as they constructed a 14 ft Core Sound rowing skiff. They also crafted 4 oars from cypress timber.

Guthrie’s syllabus included information about the heritage and culture of rack-of-the-eye boat building, a centuries old Harkers Island tradition. Rack-of the-eye builders work only with a visualization of the finished boat in mind, not aided by schematic drawings, blueprints, or formal plans.

Taking a break from hands-on instruction.

Experiencing the subtleties of using a jig saw.

Learning the art of applying two-part resin.

As seen in the movie, MASH, a tent for bath facilities when camped in the field.

The camp ground for the scouts on Polly Hill Road took advantage of all the shade it could find.

Beefing up the stem.

Learning to make the parts fit.

The visiting scouts were able to view Heber Guthrie’s latest work for a client, a 19 ft. flat-bottomed Core Sound skiff. Rumors abound that Heber has assumed the moniker, Pablo, as he is definitely entered a blue period . Pablo Picasso, like Heber, was a multi-dimensional artist.

Frances Mae Home Stretch

Few red day markers are left starboard of Frances Mae’s construction before she is ready for the public to view a tangible exhibit of rack-of-the-eye boatbuilding by Harkers Island native, Heber Guthrie.

Arapahoe native Bud Belangia, transportation director for the Frances Mae, looks on as Rusty Daniels and his assistant Chris secure the vessel for its trip to Powercraft Marine. Windows have now been installed in the wheelhouse that will honor the memory of the late Congressman Tim Valentine from the real Nashville, in North Carolina, not Tennessee.

Donations purchased the glass. Rusty Daniels donated his labor. He told project coordinator Ben Casey, “Ben, I’m not doing this because I like you.” As Casey reacted with a blank stare, “Rusty made a save by adding, “Oh, I do like you, Ben, but I really like what this organization is doing.” The glass in the windows, ideal for a boat that can experience a degree of rolling and pitching in rough seas, is shatter-proof safety glass, glass that Rusty Daniels custom cut to fit rack-0f-the-eye built windows.

Friends and associates of Tim Valentine, recalling his sense of pride in North Carolina’s heritage and his genuine service to and respect for the common man … a pool of humanity that most assuredly embraces independent commercial fishermen … donated funds to build and equip the pilot house. His name will permanently adorn the captain’s seat at the helm. A plaque in the wheelhouse will highlight how his life of service was an example of Aaron Copeland’s fanfare for the common man.

Outfitting Frances Mae with a powerplant is now underway. A traditional Core Sound workboat, she will be powered by an engine common in American waters, an Evinrude. The Evinrude Corporation and Jeff Schwarzer of Powercraft Marine in Oriental have made it possible for Frances Mae’s old-time construction to be matched with an Evinrude’s state-of-the-art E-TEC G-2, an engine that is an environmental breakthrough for 2-stroke engines. This engine burns less fuel, has high standards for curtailing emissions, and is much quieter than older 2-stroke engines.

Special Frances Mae Update

Though boat construction has occupied an enormous amount of time and resources, that is drawing to a close. NCCHA can begin focusing more on an expanding cultural/heritage education agenda. In the NCCHA charter issued by the NC Secretary of State, the mission of the organization is cultural and heritage education.

There is one more critical need before the boat can fulfill its mission as a traveling educational exhibit, a trailer. It’s first day on stage as an exhibit preserving the fast disappearing wooden boatbuilding industry on our coast will be September 8 at the Wilmington Boat Show; its entry fee is provided by Evinrude. Evinrude donated several thousand dollars in the form of a much discounted version of their newest E-TEC engine. The boat is scheduled to leave for Wilmington on Sept 6. NCCHA was preparing to raise money for a trailer, but was not anticipating the immediate need for one.

The Immediate Trailer Need: The borrowed trailer has to be returned as soon as possible, sooner if we get any tropical weather next week, a possibility depending on development of current activity in Southern Florida A fund-raising campaign has already begun. Bud Belangia has been investigating re-building used ones with the conclusion that a new tandem trailer with trailer brakes is best. Jack Lee of Arapahoe has generously kicked off this campaign with a $500 donation. A ballpark figure for a suitable trailer is $4,500.00

As the boat project comes to fruition, another NCCHA educational program is in the final planning stage. NCCHA will work with Carteret County Schools for Heber to teach a boatbuilding technology/heritage class at DownEast Middle School. This course will span two semesters. Heber, while teaching boatbuilding, explains the history of wooden boatbuilding and its role in the formation of our coastal heritage.

Meanwhile, the writing part of Sound People is taking shape.

Another need: NCCHA, working through Heber, needs a new space for expanded boat building educational opportunities. The shop in Marshallberg which has been available to NCCHA is being re-purposed by its owners. We have been advised to investigate the old school bus garage in Alliance. Please help in this search. It is believed that Heber operating from a very basic building in Pamlico County would generate participation across a broad spectrum of citizens. Long range, a sizeable grant could help acquire permanent facilities.

NCCHA President Barbara Pearson pleads, “Please join the fund-raising effort; Carolyn and Ben have beaten the bushes so much, shrubbery shrivels up when they approach. Getting more people to join will help also! Share this email with potential supporters to help get a trailer to put the boat on the road. On the water will come later.”

From a heritage perspective, teaching Sailing Basics

To begin a 2-hour class on the basics of sailing, Heber Guthrie spread a sail on a boat workshop floor, labeled different parts of the sail, and described their functions.

Responding to a request from a group of parents in DownEast Carteret County, Heber Guthrie created a 2 hour seminar in the basics of sailing for 8 Core Sound youngsters. Guthrie, a Harkers Island native, resident of Gloucester, is a local icon known for supporting a variety of civic projects for youth. He is an accomplished rack-of-the-eye builder of Core Sound skiffs, both dead rise and flat bottom styles.

Guthrie offers different workshops on subjects related to coastal heritage sponsored by the NC Coastal Heritage Association. More classes were planned for this summer but the venue for the camps became unavailable fin August. An effort is underway to schedule a class in basic skiff building in Pamlico County before public schools open for the fall semester.

With a family history steeped in boat building, Guthrie began building wooden boats at an early age. As a young boatbuilder, he was familiar with designing and building skiffs that were propelled by engines. In 1971, for his first sailboat, he chose to build a 21 ft. dead rise sail skiff. He recalled that commercial fishermen were still using sail skiffs as late as the mid 1950s. Now, with well over a hundred boats notched in his tool belt, his 46 year old first sail skiff is in pristine condition. He used it to illustrate both the complex and simple aspects of capturing wind in a sail to power a boat forward.

The class learned how a sail skiff compared to another wind powered work boat that was once a familiar sight on Core Sound, the sharpie. He said, “This type of sail skiff was used for fishing. The sharpie had a round stern and was much wider. It was used primarily to haul freight, like from farm to market. Both boats used center boards, but the sharpie was usually flat bottomed, not dead rise like the sail skiff, and it didn’t move as fast over the water.

Guthrie demonstrated a special feature of the sail skiff, the yoke. He asked the students where they had heard of a yoke being used. A couple of the youngsters associated the word with oxen. He pointed out, “The yoke on a sail skiff resembles a yoke used with oxen, but it takes the place of a tiller. The fisherman can be sitting in the middle of the boat working on nets and steer the boat by pulling on lines attached to the yoke. The rudder is connected to the yoke, so when the lines attached to the yoke make the yoke turn, the ruder turns.

Heber Guthrie points out the yoke that replaces the tiller on his sail skiff.

Ropes, known as lines onboard a vessel, are attached to each end of the yoke. Pulling on one of these lines turns the yoke, simultaneously turning the rudder.

The students observed that the yoke and the rudder could be lifted away from the transom for temporary storage in the boat.

The special value of using a yoke as a tiller is that both yoke and rudder can be easily lifted from the stern and stored inside the boat. The net can then be easily pulled in over the stern if the yoke and rudder have been temporarily removed.

Omar sails were made in Beaufort. Heber Guthrie told the students that he knew the sail maker personalty and purchased sails for his first sailboat from him. Omar was the name of the sail maker’s cat. Both the sail maker and Omar moved to Ohio; the Omar business was sold.

Net needles and a pocket knife were kept in a small compartment on sail skiffs that were used for fishing. If a net was snagged on a submerged object and subsequently torn, the fisherman would mend the net on the spot to continue fishing.

The students learned the difference between a jib sail and a mainsail. He told the students that the jib could be considered as the power sail because its position next to the bow made it the first to catch the wind. He raised the sails on the skiff and explained that wind would spill off the jib into the mainsail. They also learned that keeping a tight line on a sail made it capture wind, while loosening that line would dump the wind from the sail.

Guthrie emphasized a point he makes with all students. “I want to talk to young people about the heritage of coastal communities. They need to know the history of the people who worked in these boats and the people who built these boats. So many traditions are disappearing and it’s important that future generation have some knowledge about people who depended on the water for making a living. It was more than a way to make a living. It was living.”

New members and supporters are in great demand to enhance the success of NCCHA projects underway and the development of new projects,


Tags:Eco, Water, Air, Environment