An Accidental Pirate Builds a Boat

Walking along the boardwalk, I happened upon a band of pirates led by none other than Captain Jack Sparrow. This was the second Jack Sparrow I’d seen in the past 20 minutes, but this one was a good bit more convincing than the first. He had the half-staggered walk down pat and greeted me with a spot-on, lilting, “Hello, Mate.” I was in the town of Beaufort (that’s Bo’ Fort) for a weekend class on wooden boat-building at the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Coincidentally, it also happened to be the weekend of the Beaufort Pirate Invasion. I was completely unaware of this fact when I registered for the class and only figured it out when I started calling around to book a room and found the first four or five places I tried were full — some 30 days in advance.

Beaufort sits at the southern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks near the deep-water port of Morehead City. Settled in the 1700’s, largely by New Englanders, the town has a distinctly northern coastal vibe similar to the small fishing villages I have visited in Maine and Massachusetts. Furthering this connection is the local whaling history. While not as productive or well-known as places like New Bedford or Nantucket, the Southern Outer Banks region was a modest contributor to the whaling industry of the 19th century, a legacy documented in great detail by a display at the wonderful North Carolina Maritime Museum on Front Street. 

I arrived in Beaufort mid-afternoon on Friday, August 10th, after a six-hour drive from Charlotte, and checked in at Cousin’s Bed & Breakfast. As previously mentioned, every other B&B in town was booked and I only lucked-out at Cousin’s because the “Treehouse Room” had only that day (of my initial call) been finished and available for booking. Cousin’s is located on Turner Street, two blocks from the waterfront, and it turned out to be a perfect location for both the Pirate Invasion and my boat building class.

The main building is a historic home that also houses the Satan’s Breath company, a purveyor of hot sauces and spices. The Treehouse Room is located above a garage and workshop twenty yards behind the main house. The accommodations were clean and cozy — nothing fancy and there’s no television, but a great way to get the atmosphere of an old port town.

After chatting a bit with the proprietor, Chef Elmo, I unpacked, splashed some water on my face and headed “downtown.” Beaufort is not a big place. The downtown business district consists of four blocks of commercial buildings along Front Street and a few houses converted to restaurants and galleries along the adjacent side streets. Front Street is bounded to the east by the Beaufort Inlet, and there are always dozens of boats moored in the safety of this picturesque natural harbor.

I had time to check out a few of the local shops — where you can buy everything from freshly made fudge to fine jewelry — before the start of the “Buccaneer Review,” a community dinner/pirate talent show hosted by the downtown business association. For $15, I was treated to an all-you-can-eat fried chicken and barbecue dinner and 90 minutes of “pirate” entertainment, some pretty good… some, not so much. From bits and pieces of conversation I picked up over the course of the evening, I learned that some of the pirates were professionals who were paid to show up and perform. Others, I think, were local volunteers or folks who just enjoy dressing up and saying “aargh!” a lot. One of the most interesting of the professionals was Captain Bill, who had a real wooden leg and a live parrot who sat on his shoulder as he performed, occasionally squawking along.

The official tagline of the Invasion is, “It Takes A Village To Pillage,” but in truth there wasn’t much pillaging of any sort going on. The whole event was a family friendly version of pirate lore along the lines of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. One thing did become fairly obvious to me, however — if you give a group of five-year-olds foam swords, they will use them on one another.

While the Pirate Invasion certainly added some spice to the weekend, the real purpose of my visit was learning traditional methods of wooden boat building, and that endeavor started on Saturday morning at the museum’s watercraft center. A thundershower had rolled through early in the morning and it was still drizzling slightly as I walked the two blocks from my room to the waterfront. Some lagging runners from the “Ho, Ho, Ho and a Bottle o’ Run” 5K were just crossing the finish line on Front Street as I passed. The watercraft center is located directly across from the museum’s main exhibit building. It is a working boatbuilding facility of about 10,000 square feet, alive with the sounds and smells of traditional wooden boatbuilding.  There is a viewing platform above the shop floor where folks wander in off the street and watch the boats take shape.

Entering the facility, I found a person who looked like they might have some idea what was going on and indicated that I was there for the class. He pointed me in the direction of two men standing on the dock near the waterside entrance. If you asked central casting to send you someone to play the part of a New England sea-captain, they’d probably come up with someone who looks a lot like Craig Wright. Sixty-ish, with white hair and beard, a lit pipe clenched between his teeth. True to his looks, he was born and raised in Connecticut and made his way to Beaufort after — and I’m not making this up — being stranded there during a storm while ferrying a boat from Florida. The other man with Craig was my classmate, Matt MacKinnon, an IT professional from Chapel Hill. After introductions, Craig told us that there were supposed to be two more in the class, but they hadn’t shown up yet and he hadn’t heard from them.  He gave us a quick tour of the facility while we waited. Our first stop was the galley, where Craig had a pot of hot coffee brewing and some cheese Danish ready for us. He then showed us all the various pieces of woodworking equipment, some of which I hadn’t operated since high school wood shop, and some of which I had never even heard of, let alone operated. After 30 minutes, it became obvious that the other two members of the class weren’t going to show up, and we had to adjust our plans accordingly.

Typically, the class works together to design and build a 14 foot “rack-of-eye” skiff. But, Craig informed us, there was no way just the two of us could finish a boat that large in two days, so we would scale everything in half with the intent that the 6-7 foot “boat” we were building would likely be converted to a bookcase when it was finished.

The first part of the class consisted of learning about the history of wooden boat building in the area and the “rack-of-eye” method of boat design. Until the middle part of the 20th century wooden boat building skills were common in the coastal areas of North Carolina. Virtually everyone — even farmers and merchants — knew basic boat building skills, which were passed on from generation to generation. With the development of new materials and manufacturing techniques in the 1940’s and 1950’s, however, boats became less expensive to mass produce and lasted for years with little maintenance. As a result, fewer and fewer people learned how to build a wooden boat and make repairs. Over a couple of generations, these skills were all but completely lost. One of the key missions of the watercraft center is to keep wooden boatbuilding alive on the Carolina coast.

“Rack-of-eye” refers to the method of building a boat without using drawn plans. This traditional method has been passed down through hands-on training with certain basic rules of thumb; such as a boat’s beam (width) should be roughly one-third its length. Rack-of-eye design is an evolutionary process whereby someone building a boat would look at his neighbors boats, consider what seemed to work and what didn’t, and then add his own modifications.

For our purposes, we started by creating a simple scale model of our design. Once we were satisfied with that, we began translating it to our full-size project. It was interesting to see two well-educated professionals initially struggle with fractions and decimal conversion; proof that if you don’t use it, you lose it. Eventually, though, all that 5th grade math came back to us.

Although I had built a simple “stitch-and-glue” pram in my garage a few years ago, I did so with only the most basic of tools; a jig saw, a grinder and a sander, so with all those expensive, professional-quality woodworking tools at my disposal, I was like a kid in a candy store. Matt and I worked together to build up the frame and add the planking to the sides, as Craig directed, and then called it a day.

That evening, I had a fine dinner at Clawson’s Restaurant on Front Street and strolled the downtown shops, picking up a few souvenirs for family and the crew back at the office, and a Queen Anne’s Revenge tee-shirt for myself. I even stopped by the famous Backstreet Pub, but it was packed to the rafters with faux pirates so I decided to call it a night. Since I was back to the room early, in keeping with the theme of the weekend, I plowed through several chapters of Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes before nodding off to sleep.

The next morning again dawned overcast and I shared a delicious breakfast with the other guests at the B&B. Chef Elmo lays out a great spread and I was pleased to purchase some of his signature hot sauce to add to my own recipes. Once back at the watercraft center, we immediately began the laborious process of planking the bottom of the boat. Each plank had to be cut to exact dimensions and then hand shaped to fit and sealed with a silicone-based caulk that was rather unpleasant to work with. This took the better part of the morning, and when we broke for lunch, there was some concern over whether we’d actually be able to finish up that day. In the afternoon, we cut the gunwales, and I made the first major error of the project, cutting each about 6 inches too short. I am still not entirely sure how that happened, but it was definitely my fault, and we lost a good 30 minutes to that mistake. As the 4 o’clock deadline approached our pace became increasingly harried. Cleaning the excess caulk from the plank joints was an exercise in patience. Under normal circumstances, we would have just waited for the caulk to cure and cut it away with a knife or sand it flat. But, in our attempt to compress the building process, we had to deal with a partially cured silicone which was too liquid to cut or sand, but to solid to just wipe away with solvent. What a mess! Finally, at quarter after four, Craig pronounced the boat finished, and I loaded up the car for the long drive back home.

Just a couple of things to wrap up:

Last year, Beaufort won Budget Travel magazine’s honor as “Coolest Small Town in America,” and rightly so. I love Huntersville and Lake Norman and have no intention of moving from here anytime soon, but if I were to leave, Beaufort would be one of the first places I would look.

The North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort is a great place for the whole family, with tons of things to do and see.

Cousins Bed & Breakfast on Turner Street is a great place to stay while in Beaufort. Proprietors Martha & Elmo Barnes are hospitable and set a great table. And be sure to ask about their wide array of hot sauce and spices.

John B. Marek

Huntersville, North Carolina

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