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Boats outlive watermen who crafted them

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Wilson Snowden of Currituck points out the unique characteristics of a V-hull boat crafted by Blanton Saunders more than a half century ago.

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By Cindy Beamon
Albemarle Life Editor

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Old wooden boats that have outlived the Currituck watermen who built them may end up on the trash heap or fire pit unless someone rescues them.

The late Travis Morris, who wrote about the history of hunt clubs, fishermen and boats in Currituck, had hopes of restoring the relics. The boats are unique because they are made of wood, not fiberglass like most boats today. They were designed to navigate the rough, shallow waters in the Currituck Sound during a time when wildfowl and wealthy sportsmen flocked to the county in abundance.

Morris kept the now-decaying boats in sheds that are falling apart themselves. Other boats are covered with vines after years of being stored on the ground.

Property owners intend to tear down the old sheds and get rid of the boats soon. Before that happens, the Currituck Boat Committee is offering ancestors of the boat makers or others a chance to save the vessels, now stored on a lot off Caratoke Highway behind Currituck Reality where Morris used to work.

"The boats were built locally by these craftsmen at the time that didn't know they were craftsmen. It was just their way of life," said Penny Leary-Smith, who serves on the county-appointed committee.

The county has restored some boats that Morris and his partner Wilson Snowden collected. The "Mother Goose" and others are already on exhibit at Corolla Historic Park. Plans have been drawn, but not yet approved, for a new museum that will house the historic boats and tell their stories.

Restoring the remaining boats built more than a half century ago would be expensive, said Snowden, a boat committee member. The job will also require the expertise of a boat builder familiar with wooden boats. Most boats today are made out of fiberglass, but this collection was made from planks of juniper, he noted.

Currituck watermen crafted the boats for their own use and for hunt clubs that catered to wealthy business tycoons from the north. At the time they were built, "Currituck County was the mecca of duck hunting," added Rodney Kight, chairman of the boat committee.

Snowden said some of the boats were designed to offer a little comfort in rough conditions on the Currituck Sound. The V-hulled boats, like the one built by Blanton Saunders, were better than flat-bottomed boats for crossing choppy waters.

"The flat bottom boats will shake you to death on a day like today," Snowden said during an interview last week.

Another V-hull boat built by John Guard had a wooden cap that kept the splash off hunters while crossing the sound, he said. Boats like the "Cavato" and "The Dare" were designed to ride higher at the bow to cut through choppy water. Snowden said heavy inboard motors, weighing 700 to 800 pounds, also helped lessen the bounce.

"You won't see this one flopping around," he said about one of the 26-footers.

When hunters reached the right spot, they would hop aboard flat-bottomed skiffs, like those made by Joe Hayman, Billy Corbell and Pat O'Neal. The skiffs with 9 horsepower motors could float in only four-inches of water, making them perfect for navigating through shallow reed beds.

The skiffs were also popular with game wardens because they could run across shoals without getting stuck.

Snowden said making the boats out of wooden planks, like the V-hull by Blanton Saunders, was not easy. The planks were steamed so they would bend into the right shape. If the boards were not fitted properly, they would make a popping sound after wood dried. That sound -- loud as a shotgun firing -- was bad news. Fixing the problem was nearly impossible, he said.

In their heyday, the locally crafted boats were highly valued, noted Kight.

"To somebody living and working on the water, they were a valuable piece," said Kight, nodding toward the boats that have fallen into disrepair. Restoring them to their former glory will not be an easy task, he said.

"Some of them are well past anybody doing anything with them," said Kight.

Kight said people may inquire about the boats by leaving a message on his cell phone at 453-8449. The boats will need to be relocated to a different location by February, he said.

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