by Amanda Dagnino
The Harkers Island brogue is thick with Jamie Lewis. Leaning against the stern of a 33-foot wooden skimmer in the workshop at Lewis Boats in near stifling August heat, he is modest about his accomplishments. Quiet and unassuming, he reminds us that sometimes the best things in life are just that – they’re subtle. And you have to remember to watch for them or they might just slip on past in the blink of the eye.
Boat building in Down East Carteret County is certainly one of those things – a craft once prevalent that has become more rare with each passing season. A handful of builders, in small backyard shops, strive to keep that tradition alive today, but it’s an ongoing battle to make a living at the craft.
In May of this year, Jamie, his brother Houston, and son James, found themselves in Raleigh, the recipients of a NC Heritage Award. In addition to their lifelong achievements, it was the construction of the Bobby D for Florida resident Greg Davis that brought them here.
According to Karen Amspacher, executive director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, who nominated the trio for the award, Davis remembers fishing trips with his father aboard the Albatross, a “true Core Sounder easily identified with its flare bow and round stern.” In his 40s now, Davis, a charter boat captain, felt there was no better way to honor his father than with the construction of a similar vessel. Through the grapevine of recommendations he found his way to the Lewis brothers.
It was, as Amspacher recalled in her nomination, a bittersweet affair.
“The building of this boat evolved into a mission, a return to the days of Harkers Island boatbuilding. It was a step back to the time when boat building was an art form, the careful mix of form and function, known best by those who had worked the water, understood the elements, held that innate knowledge of engineering and design that is a true boat builder. This kind of boat creation requires craftsmanship in every detail that cannot be hurried,” she wrote.
Four years in the making, the 45-foot vessel drew the attention of the community. They would stop by the workshop for a look and discuss her progress down at the store where folks gather to talk over coffee.
“‘She’s the last round stern that will ever be built on Harkers Island,’ was the general consensus among the locals,” Amspacher shared. “The local people came with a mix of pride and sadness, telling stories, many of them remembering the days when boats were built under oak trees in most every yard on the Island. Men and women whose fathers and grandfathers had established the time-honored tradition of backyard boatbuilding on the Island came reverently and regularly to watch as Jamie and his son, ‘took the numbers’ and began to build. They understood the meaning of what was taking place.”
His father Burgess had built his fair share of boats, young Jamie at his heels. He wasn’t as active as Jamie and Houston, but it was a job he could always go back to.
Inevitably, Jamie would get pulled in to help, although he admits, it wasn’t always something he wanted to do.
“The boys would be out there playing baseball behind the Mormon church and we’d be in the yard working with dad,” said Jamie. “We could hear them – it was bad. It wasn’t what young boys wanted to do on a Saturday” he added with a laugh.
He built his first boat on his own in 1954. He was 15. His only power tool was a band saw. Brother Houston joined him in his efforts in 1960 and Lewis Boats was officially born. There was no big fanfare. It was just the next stage in the process. At the time, the men – well, boys really – had no idea that they were launching the business they would run for their entire adult life. Nor did they realize the impact of the craft they were carrying forward. There weren’t many opportunities for young men and this was a craft they had been raised with.
“It just happened naturally, this was something we could do and something we were good at. It was what we knew,” said Jamie.
And business was good. In those early days it was primarily work boats, although changes in the fishing industry and the cost of construction materials has brought a slow transition to more sportfishing vessels and less commercial over time.
In 1989, Jamie’s son James came into the fold. He had planned on entering the military, but learned during his physical that he had glaucoma. Fortunately, he had another option – and he was soon in the shop with his dad and uncle, further building the family’s tradition.
It wasn’t a hard transition. He had helped out through the years off and on and he had been around boats and boat building his whole life. It’s hard to pinpoint when he began helping his dad, he said.
“It’s just always been – ever since I can remember anyway.”
For more than 25 years James has been an active part of the team, watching the raw construction of maybe 20 or so boats during that time.
“There’s been a lot of big boats, so they do take a bit of time to finish, a year or better,” said James. “And we do a lot of repair and restoration work, too.”
Like the Lewis men that have come before him, the skill is almost innate. There are no master plans, no project board, just an idea and perhaps a basic sketch. From the laying of the keel to the gel coat that protects the boat’s exterior, the skills are ingrained almost since birth.
“You have to want to do it – that’s the most important thing. And if you’re interested and if you’re around it all the time, you just pick it up,” said Jamie. “There’s lots of figuring involved, arithmetic, and you’ve got to get it here,” he added, pointing to his head. “You have to get it in your head.”
A boat is a boat, he added, some people may want them bigger and some may want them taller, but they’re basically all the same.
Construction has come a long way from those early days. Sawdust covered power tools now line the walls the of the two-story workspace. Materials have changed as well. The glue is better today, the nails are better today and there is no comparison to the epoxy on the market. But the wood has degraded through the years somewhat. The men still use juniper, also known as white cedar, for construction although the wood of the early days was old growth with limited knots and today’s wood tends to be younger growth with more knots. The first boat Jamie built some 60 years ago, is still around, which speaks volumes about the old-school methods used in construction. Their hands touch every inch of the vessel with a level of craftsmanship that can’t be outdone even by today’s standards.
Construction methods have changed little. Sure, the men can build a sportfisher that will rival even the most prestigious yacht company’s offerings, but it is in those old round stern Core Sounders where their heart lies.
It might be hard for folks in many parts of the country – or perhaps even the state – to understand how two men can spend years inside a garage, often in stifling heat, painstakingly piecing together a floating work of art. But in this community, where so much of life is dictated by the wind and the tide, where life once, in fact, depended on those things, it is everything.
“Building a boat isn’t the right thing for everyone,” said James. “When people decide they want to buy a boat, they want to go buy a boat. Fiberglass boats have hurt wooden boats and backyard builders a lot. When you build a boat, it’s a long drawn out process. You place the order, or discuss the boat, and then you wait until the builder is available. Then you wait again while the boat is being built. It’s not like going to the dealer and picking out something.”
“The Lewis family exemplifies what Harkers Island boatbuilding has stood for over the generations. Their knowledge is experience-based and their integrity solid. Their talents go back generations and they operate in much the same way their father and grandfather did before them; a honest day’s work for a day’s pay,” said Amspacher. “They do not consider themselves extraordinary because ‘they are what they are and always have been.’
“I was proud to be part of them receiving the NC Heritage Award. They are the best of North Carolina, the best of Harkers Island, the best of the best.”
James admits he didn’t know much about the award when Karen told him she had nominated him so he had to do a little research. He soon learned he’s in good company – decoy carvers Julian Hamilton, Jr. and Homer Fulcher, model boatbuilder James Allen Rose and boat builder Julian Guthrie have been bestowed with the Heritage Award through the years, as well as Beaufort’s Menhaden Chanteymen.
“It’s a great honor, but there are lots of other boat builders out there who do the same thing as us, maybe even better,” he said with a humble chuckle, as if uncomfortable with the spotlight that has caught him.
Houston semi-retired in 2007 due to health issues, but he was there regularly during the building of the Bobby D. It would be hard not to be a part of the history. As the father of three girls, there is no one for Houston to pass his craft to. Now the responsibility lies squarely on James.
But a shred of hope sits quietly in the back of the barn-like workspace. A boat Jamie Lewis built some 43 years ago has made its way back into the fold by way of James’s son Dereck. The original owner of the boat sold it to the young man and he has embraced the project. He’s raising the gunnels and making it a little bit longer, and plans to keep it for himself – a lasting illustration of the family’s craftsmanship that will inevitably be their legacy.
He works at nearby Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point so no one is holding their breath just yet. But even if the young man doesn’t break into a sprint down the path that has been carved in front of him, he will, if even in a small way, follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. What they know, will become what he knows.