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I wish I had seen the Nancy Ellen when she was built in 1927. She’s still tied up at the harbor of refuge in the fishing village of Atlantic, North Carolina, but after her restoration as a pleasure boat, she doesn’t look at all like she did when Ambrose Fulcher fashioned her out of juniper and heart pine for the long-haul fishery.

From what I can tell, she likely would have resembled her sister workboat, the Wasted Wood, photographed when she docked behind the Smith Fish House in Atlantic 30 years ago. Built in 1933 by Will Mason, the low-sided Wasted Wood is long gone, but I remember well how she seemed more a motor-driven surfboard than a fishing boat, what with her daring freeboard hovering just inches above the water.

Of the scores of old wooden workboats I photographed in the Core Sound region over the past 30 years, Nancy Ellen and Wasted Wood were among the oldest. Many of them have gone to pieces now, although the Old Salt, also built in Atlantic, in 1919, is still a working boat, and I’m betting she’ll reach her centennial.

Vanishing workboats

Atlantic is one of a dozen fishing villages perched on the shores of the waterlogged peninsula locally called “Down East North Carolina.” Its eastern shore borders the shallow waters of Core Sound and its once-prolific populations of flounder, spot, trout, mullet, shrimp, oysters, crabs and clams. Coree Indians exploited these resources seasonally, as did English settlers, who learned to build boats of such versatility that they could be easily adapted to the demands of net fishing, shrimping or oystering throughout the year. These boats were fashioned by hand, often in a backyard and without benefit of electricity.

By the early 20th century, Core Sounders tended to be 35- to 40-foot deadrise (vee-bottomed) vessels with a sweeping sheer and a rounded stern that enabled fishermen to get close to the water. They were built lean — on a 4-to-1 length-to-beam ratio — and cut through rough seas even without a lot of engine to push them. They inherited the lines of the old sailing sharpies that had migrated to the region from New Haven, Connecticut, in the late 19th century.

The storied long-haul boat Nancy Ellen keeps alive the community memory of a way of life fast disappearing.

Down East’s vast marshes and forests isolated its villages from each other and from the mainland well into the 20th century. Their isolation often nudged boatbuilders in different directions. In the far eastern part of the sound, an Atlantic boat would be recognizable by its straight-sided hull, tall cabin and rectangular windows, a style associated with master boatwright Ambrose Fulcher, who built hundreds of similar boats and skiffs over his long lifetime and was well known in the region. In the western part of the sound, Harkers Island builders such as Brady Lewis tended to build boats with low cabins and portholes or side-lights, and they put a lot of flare in their bows. These presented an elegant and recognizable profile on the water; Harkers Islanders were proud of their “pretty boats.”

Studying my photographs of old Core Sound workboats, the watermen told me stories about builders, owners, family members, crewmembers, accidents, repairs and great fishing hauls. Their stories uncovered webs of memory that linked boats to individuals, families and communities. Stories about a single boat could wend through generations and sometimes explode with detail, as in Keith Mason’s answer to my question about a boat named Our Kid.

“Leroy Goodwin over to Cedar Island owned the boat at one time. The name of her was Four Kids when Leroy had her, and when my brother bought her he only had one kid, so he took the ‘F’ off and named her Our Kid. She’s up there to Styron’s Creek now.

“Anyhow, he bought her from Leroy Goodwin, and he owned her eight or 10 years, I guess, and he sold her to Wayne Gaskill, and he still owns her. But she’s been rebuilt a couple of times. He had her tied up at Styron’s Creek in the late 1990s, and one of those hurricanes, Fran maybe, turned her over in the creek, tore the rigging out of her, busted the side of her. Nick Smith to [from] Marshallberg rebuilt her for him.”

Stories such as these, summoned from memory by the mention or photograph of a boat, help fishermen and their families maintain connections with their past and their heritage. Increasingly, however, nostalgia and melancholy creep into the stories. “This young ’un won’t have the kind of life that Mike and I have had,” one woman told me, cradling a boy in her arms.

“It’s all changed, and the fish business is history,” said the former owner of a fish house. Overfishing, fuel costs, cheap fish imports, pollution, climate change, regulations — all have been blamed for the drastic falloff in catches in Core Sound, which has forced many fishermen and their boats to the sidelines.

"It seems like it's a dying process, but I'm trying to hold on ..."

Heritage is a word much bandied about in these parts because it describes what is being lost — the traditions of fishing and boatbuilding handed down from generation to generation. Yet as fishermen play a diminished role in Down East’s communities, the old builders have been elevated, their boats justly celebrated as folk art.

Just outside the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island, the restored sink-netter Jean Dale (built in 1946) stands monumental in her shed, a graceful embodiment of the old Core Sounder. She was restored not only to recall her great builder, Brady Lewis, but also the pantheon of known and unknown boatbuilders whose mastery of simple tools and obdurate materials made the Core Sound workboat synonymous with beauty and utility.


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