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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

No. 45 "... something that no true waterman could do without - a skiff."

... The boats that lined the Island shore were generally moored between one and two hundred feet offshore. For that reason they required something that no true waterman could do without; a skiff. Twelve to fifteen "foot" skiffs were pulled up almost everywhere along the south shore of the Island. There probably were more skiffs than there were real fishing boats. Not everyone could afford a big boat, but almost anyone could have his very own skiff.

Despite how many there were, skiffs pulled up on the shore were considered to be almost communal. It was assumed that, in a pinch, you could use any skiff you could get to, so long as you returned it where and like you found it. This view was not shared by everyone as evidenced by a story my Daddy used to tell of noticing someone along the shore to the eastard actually setting fire to his skiff and watching as it burned into ashes. The man was often ill tempered, and it turned out that someone had borrowed the skiff without asking, and then returned it full of sand and seaweed. When my father inquired as to why he was now burning it, the response was quick and simple. “Spite!”

Fishermen used skiffs to get from the shore to his boat. It generally was light enough to enable one man to pull it up on dry land all by himself, especially if he used rollers. Others left their skiffs tied or anchored only a few feet beyond the tidal line so rolled-up pants were all that were needed to wade to the skiff, even at high tide.

Skiffs also served as readily available "pack horses" that could be pulled behind bigger boats to carry nets, drags, or rakes used by the commercial fishermen as well as the fish, clams, oysters, or scallops that they might catch. It could even be used to ferry a banks pony back and forth between Shackleford Banks and the Island if a young boy's pleading yielded the desired results.

Harkers Island skiffs were all pretty much the same. Some were just a little bigger or smaller than others. The had no flare or deadrise, being the truest of "flat-bottomed" boats. Each one had at least one oar, generally from about eight to ten feet in length; just enough to push off the bottom anywhere on this side of the channel. They were outfitted with an iron anchor and fifty feet of sisal rope that ran through a small hole cut into a little front deck.

The skiffs almost always were made of juniper, the lightest native wood available, to make them all the easier to pull ashore or back into the sound. For convenience in building, they generally were "cross-planked," a construction method much simpler than the length-wise planking used in bigger boats. They generally had at least one thwart seat, which everyone called simply a "thaught." This "thaught" also strengthened the sides of the boat by serving as a cross beam.

There was at least one other feature common to every Island skiff; a bailer. Long ago they were made of wood with a protruding handle. Beginning in the mid 60's the wooden bailers were replaced by plastic containers, generally Clorox bottles, with the bottom and part of one side cut out.

Bailing involved much more than just scooping up water and pouring it over the side. Experienced bailers (the men or boys who used bailers were themselves called bailers) could remove water from a skiff much faster than the modern bilge-pumps that since have taken their place. A fast and steady sweeping motion kept at least one bale of water suspended in air all the time. From a distance it might have appeared that a large suction pump was spitting a steady stream of water from the bilge of the boat.

One trick that every bailer soon discovered was that bailing was much easier, and more efficient, when done with the wind. It didn't do much good to throw a gallon of water into the air if a blustering southwester returned most of it to the boat (and the bailer's face.) Oaring, or "poling" the skiff was another art that was much refined by those who used skiffs on a regular basis. Working from the leeward stern, the oarsman could move a skiff fast enough to throw a real wake. Two oarsman working together could raise a "cattail." Before gasoline powered boats became more common, local watermen poled their skiffs everywhere along the Island shore. Some even "shoved" as far as Beaufort or Davis' Island. Luther Willis became renowned for his oaring skills and speed. It was said that he could pole to Beaufort faster than others could go in a sailskiff.

Most Island boys, including me, got their first real exposure to boating in a skiff. The skiff became their training ground for setting nets and raking for clams as well as for polling itself. Being able to shove a skiff in four different directions without ever changing places was very much a right of passage for any youngster who hoped one day to be real waterman.


  1. Perfect little snapshot back in time. :)

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  3. Incredible story there. What happened after? Take care!
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