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Monday, May 14, 2012

No. 101 "Do you want me to build her for fishing or to go fast? "

Uncle Teff (Telford Willis) in front of his net house at the Landing.

My Uncle Teff (Telford Willis) had scrimped and saved for most of his adult life to get enough money for the boat of his dreams. He had worked with fishing crews since before he could remember, and had owned several small boats including a sailskiff. But now he was gonna have built the boat he had dreamed of and planned for during all those years of working for and with others.

Not only that, his new boat, "The Francis," named after his oldest daughter, was being built by Brady Lewis, the boat builder from the East'ard who was already a legend both on and off the Island. He had come to see Brady early one morning to tell him of yet another idea he had conjured up about tweaking "The Francis" even as it was being built; perhaps something he had seen on another boat, or even something he figured out while riding in someone else's on his way back and forth to the Banks.

Brady had built enough boats that he had seen or heard, and even tried, just about everything that could be imagined when it came to what was being called the Harkers Island "flare bow" boat. Vessels built by him already lined the shoreline from Red Hill to Shell Point. But the master carpenter had actually become a little frustrated at having to make changes, even small ones, in the design of something he felt he already had perfected. Eventually, Brady dropped the block plane that he was using to shape one of the juniper planks, and looked my Uncle Teff squarely in the eye to to make sure he had his attention.

"Listen Teff," he asked with a plaintiff voice that suggested he had about reached the end of his patience, "what's it gonna be? Do you want me to build her for fishing or to go fast? You can't have it both ways!"

The old boat builder had posed a question that by then was at the heart of a quandary besetting a new generation of Island fishermen; a group that had moved beyond the subsistence “working the water” that had been their sole concern just a few years earlier. Of course they still needed to make a living in their boats, it was basically all they had for supporting their families, but by the late 1930's there had developed among many of them a love for "going fast." And the craft they looked to for that, and even for racing, were the same boats that were used primarily for hauling nets, trawls, and that day's catch.

Uncle Teff was one of those who had fallen head-over-heels for the fast boat craze, and he was determined that his new boat would never be left in the wake of other boats when hurrying along the shore.

Engine-powered boats by that time had all but replaced the sailing vessels that had been used on Core Sound for two centuries. Making use of the advantages that the new motors offered, some fisherman had built large "trawlers" with masts, boons and cabins that included bunks for sleeping. Even more of the locals opted for smaller "open boats" that were less than twenty-five feet long. They usually had an engine salvaged from an older car. It was placed somewhere to the aft of the boat's center and fitted with a straight metal shaft, without a transmission, that fed through a water-tight alley to an underwater propeller. With a skeg in front and a rudder behind it, that propeller, or "wheel" as most of them called it, could shove the smaller boats to speeds upward of forty miles per hour.

Uncle Teff with two visiting Mormon Elders standing
by his net spreads at the Landing
Some devoted speed boaters would spend hours sanding the sides and bottom of their boats hoping to make them smoother, and thus faster, by reducing the drag caused by a rougher surface. One particularly dedicated boater claimed to have given his boat such a smooth finish that it was impossible for it to sit still in the water -- continually rocking back and forth to find a balance. He said that when he pulled it up on the shore to work on the motor he was obliged to anchor it so as to keep it from sliding back into the sound.

Speed could be important when chasing schools of fish, hurrying to the dock with a perishable cargo, or getting to a channel before the tide went out completely. But it soon came to be most valued in racing against other boats. Whole groups of boaters would race whenever and wherever they were headed in the same direction. Almost every day in summer, or any other time when the weather allowed, boats could be seen and heard racing down the Island channel. Especially on Saturdays the same boats would race across the strait that led to Beaufort for the weekend shopping in town. Even when no trips were planned, Saturday mornings were race days at the Landing. The sounds of rushing motors could be heard all along the shore and swells from the speeding boats would create an almost constant flow of waves washing up along the sandy beach.

Every summer, on the 4th of July, late that afternoon and after everyone had returned from the horse penning at Diamond City of that morning, almost the entire Island population would gather at the shore of Academy field for races that would last until dark. The day's winner was awarded a small cup as a memento, but the greatest prize was the reputation earned as "having the fastest boat on the Island."

All of this in some form or another was churning in the mind of my uncle Teff as he pondered his response to Brady Lewis's ultimatum about how he wanted "The Francis" to be fashioned by the greatest boat craftsmen the Island would ever know.

But it was with only a moment's hesitation that he made his decision and blurted out his emphatic response.

"You make her go fast, and I'll fish her the best I can!"


  1. I've just discovered your writings on Harkers Island, so am catching up now. But I'm really enjoying reading them. i love Harkers and eager to read more about its history. Thanks for these short stories about life on the island. // joel

  2. Joel, Thanks so much for the note. It makes my day to learn that these stories mean something to other folks too. Joel

  3. Joel, Thanks so much for the note. It makes my day to learn that these stories mean something to other folks too. Joel