Each year, on the third Saturday in October, the little town of Georgetown in the low country of South Carolina puts on the biggest and best wooden boat show in the southeast. Dozens of exhibitors bring their creations, restorations, or well-preserved classics to show off, either in the water along the Harborwalk or on Front Street, the main thoroughfare of downtown.
I drove down from Winston-Salem Saturday, arriving mid-day to find the show in full swing. I parked on a residential street several blocks back from the exhibits and enjoyed looking at the beautiful old houses and massive live oak trees that ornament the old part of Georgetown as I walked down to the waterfront.
First order of business was to check in with my friend Bruce Mierke, Murphy NC boat builder who last year had been down with his Sam Devlin-designed waterway cruiser Palmetto. I found Bruce and his fellow Murphy boatbuilder Greg Moore set up at the top of Front Street. Greg is in the process of restoring a Century motorboat, but it's not finished so he brought his strip-planked rower, Stress Relief II. I think Bruce had hoped to bring his 29 foot gaff rigged, planing-hull racer this year but a heavy schedule at his day job meant that his boat isn't finished either. So instead, he brought his grandfather's boat, GT1. This is a boat with an interesting history, and it drew a stream of visitors with questions and their own reminiscences. You see, this boat was built by instructors and students at Georgia Tech, in 1942, to prepare students to build PT boats for the war effort. It was the only one built, and thus occupies a very obscure corner of the history of Georgia Tech. Many, many of the sailors visiting Front Street this day were proud alumni or instructors at the old school, and each one wanted to stop and touch this tangible relic of the alma mater.
Bruce's grandfather was a professor at the school then, and he offered to pay for the materials in exchange for the completed boat. The offer was accepted, and after the war Professor Harrelson transported the never-launched boat to his South Carolina farm. There it dozed away the years under cover until in 1988 the professor gave it to his grandson Bruce. In September of that year, with fresh caulk, varnish and vinyl, GT1 was launched for the first time in Hiwassee Lake, in the mountains of North Carolina.
After visiting for a while with Bruce and Greg, I proceeded on to make a circuit of Front Street and the waterfront, filing all the things that caught my eye in the back of my head so I could be sure and give them more time later on.
Mid-day Saturday under blue skies, with mild temperatures in the low 70s, the crowds were out for the show. Starting last year and continuing this, an extra block of Front Street was closed to vehicular traffic, allowing the boats and crowds to spread out. At any given time, there were several thousand visitors, but with the expanse of street and dock given over to the show, there was room for everyone. I heard a rumor that hardly seems plausible that 25,000 people saw the show. My guess is that the busiest part of Saturday there may have been 4,000 people there. Overall, I think there were a few less exhibitors and visitors than last year, but still a very successful show. Last year, the 25th Anniversary of the show, there were several big draws in attendance - including two Chesapeake Bay Buy Boats and the Herreshoff torpedo boat Stilleto. This year only the 75 foot Reuel Parker pilot schooner Leopard could really lay a claim to fame. I never saw the docks as crowded as last year, when there was a true danger of people getting squeezed off into the water.
First thing on the dock was houseboat Alert, which I saw in just the same place last year, and thought just the same thing - what an ideal camping and fishing boat to while away a summer on an inland lake or blackwater river. My picture from last year's show here.
Next up was an unmistakeable member of the Bluejacket family, 26 footer PurDee, just completed by Egbert Dees of Heathsville VA. Tom Lathrop of Oriental is the designer and godfather of all Bluejacket boats. Mrs. Dees explained to me that Heathsville is on the northern neck, and a neck is Virginian for penninsula, or what Neuse River sailors would call a point.
Just like Alert, Managing comes back year after year. In 2013 I got a tour of this beautiful classic 1972 Grand Banks, last year I chatted with the friendly owners, Tom Leath and Cathy Christman of Myrtle Beach, in passing, and this year I left them alone as they were accompanied by numerous adults, children and dogs - they seemed to have their hands full.
There were less sailboats on the dock than in previous years, but there was the big Reuel Parker. I was granted permission to come aboard and given run of the ship. First I went forward and examined the fo'c's'le, which contained 4 pole berths, each with a lee cloth in place - I was half-expecting hammocks, as my friend George Ray's Colvin schooner sported them. Immediately aft was the head to port and a hanging locker to starboard. Continuing aft were two rooms, the one on starboard with a double berth, to port a single berth. I couldn't see a hatch through to the cargo hold, but there probably is one to allow crew to move the length of the boat below deck. Back on deck, I looked down into the cargo hold which was divided longitudinally by a partition - ah, of course, a centerboard trunk. And to the aft, the mechanism for raising and lowering the board. Back in the capacious cockpit, I chatted for a few minutes with some of the young crew. With lots of visitors aboard, I forewent examining the saloon, but I'm sure it was just as salty and seaworthy as the rest of the ship.
At home in the days after the show, I looked up Leopard and got more information on her. She is modeled after an extreme Baltimore Clipper, draws 4 feet with board up and 9 1/2 feet with board down, is of cold-moulded construction, and was Mr. Parker's personal ship and home for many years. He has a page at his website devoted to her, well worth the visit - for that matter, his whole website is an inspiration to the sailor and a motivator to get out on the water.
After this quick tour of the docks, it was back to Front Street to see the canoes, trailer boats and other smaller craft. First up was a big husky catboat, Valiant, currently under restoration by Doug McQuilken. The boat is 104 years old and a long way from being complete. She is the kind of worthy old boat that would be cut up for firewood if not for a dedicated restorer like Doug. I'm looking forward to seeing her in seaworthy condition at a Georgetown show down the road.
Next up was a Windmill dinghy called Mudshark owned by Thomas Payne of Mooresville NC. The Windmill class was designed in 1953 as an easily-built racer for a two-person crew. Not quite a Paper Jet, but sporty. Hmmm, I wonder if Tom is a Frank Zappa fan?
Lawrence Tracy was back this year with his child's kayak Emma. I said it last year and I will say it again - I can't think of anything better to introduce a young person to the water than a boat like Emma. Lawrence also exhibited several cradle boats, so I'm guessing that in his family children are introduced to boats at a very early age. And because he likes to paddle too, he brought a 16 foot skin-on-frame kayak.
Eventually I made my way all the way back around to where Bruce and Greg had their boats on exhibit. While talking boats, sailing and Oriental, Bruce made a generous offer. All exhibitors are given two tickets to the awards banquet held on Saturday night after the show. Since his wife hadn't come down from the mountains, he had an extra ticket. Would I like to have it? No arm twisting necessary. Yes, I certainly would.
So, with dinner plans made, I had plenty of time for another loop. Out on the dock, I stopped to admire the large and comfortable aft deck of 1965 Owens Hope Lee, all teak and mahogany with wicker armchairs and potted plants. Nearby I found Core Sounder Karen, built in 1943 by Ed Willis, who I believe was a Harkers Island boatbuilder. Karen has been modified as a pleasure craft, but a similar boat in original work boat configuration, Jean Dale, is currently on permanent exhibit at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum.
Hank and Susan Tiller's lobsterboat Cost + was at its usual location on the dock but unlike last year there were not five boats rafted up outside of her. Hailing out of Georgetown, Cost + always has a party going.
Back ashore, I took a closer look at Dave Fisher's double-ended 17 foot Viking longboat. Dave put some amazing curves in the heavy pine planking in Dragonfly, his own design and his first attempt at construction "other than canoes." Several professional boatbuilders stopped to admire his work and suggest that some ballast stones in the bilge might prove necessary. Dave's wife claimed he used all her green food coloring to get the exact tone he was looking for in the hand checked endposts.
Now, with the sun getting low, Bruce and I helped friend Robbin Cobia load his restored Old Town canoes plus an 8 foot model he built himself onto his car so he could leave after dinner for Greensboro. I walked around one more time and then headed for the huge awning that was the location for the awards dinner. I presented my ticket, looked to the left and was delighted to see an enormous display of liquor bottles of every variety, with well-groomed, smiling young bartenders prepared to make any concoction a thirsty sailor could want. Then I thought of the drive up Highway 17 that I would make later in the evening and asked for a Budweiser.
A while later my friends showed up with others in tow, and soon we were seated with beers in hand. There was a long, disorganized conversation about a lost Century motorboat (like the kind Greg restores) in a barn that Bruce used to own, somewhere in the Snowbird Mountains of deepest Appalachia. The problem was, if I deciphered things correctly, that Bruce couldn't remember who he gave the barn to, or even where the barn was, or if there was a Century in it, though his friends were pretty certain there was ---. Pretty soon we were all rolling out of our chairs laughing, and then the call came to start through the buffet line. However, the line started clear on the other side of the area, just as I had been telling them it would be, and Bruce said it was his fault for doubting the press - that was me, my proprietorship over neuseriversailors.com having earned me the title of "the press." But the catering staff did a wonderful job of shepherding 550 people through the line, and we were all served within twenty minutes.
And what a repast it was! Just down-home country food, but superbly prepared - rice, green beans, sweet potatoes, fried chicken, barbecue and slaw, rolls, banana pudding. I have eaten enough catered meals to know what to expect, and this exceeded all expectations.
Across the table from me was Captain Robert Cobb of Charleston and his friendly and outgoing eleven-year-old son. They were there with little sister and other family members to exhibit the family boat - an Old Town canoe built in 1917 and passed down through the generations. Robert had a great old photograph of his mother and two aunts paddling on a lake back in the 1930s. Some years ago, his mother decided to cut the boat in two and make bookshelves out of it, but Robert pleaded to be allowed to take it. That's why it is still in existence, and why it is exhibited every year at Georgetown. This year the awards committee granted it a special award, and Robert's son and daughter went forward to receive it, then hurried back to the table to show it to their father.
My new acquaintance, Robbin Cobia received the Classic Canoe award, as well as the Model Boats award for his 8 foot scale model of an Old Town canoe. Like every year, there was a boatbuilding competition, to build a stock design, and a team of Carteret County boys, Bobby Staub and Josh Fulp, won it, while setting a new world record for speed for this design, completing their boat in an hour and 39 minutes.
I hated to leave a party in full swing, but it was getting late into the evening. Bruce, I owe you big time for the ticket to the banquet. I'll pay off in pizza when I see you in Oriental, at open mike night at the Silos. I excused myself to make the drive up Highway 17 to my usual abode when visiting Georgetown - the Motel 6 on the southern outskirts of Pawley's Island. I have stayed here three years running, and been completely satisfied every time. It's quiet, clean and cheap. No frills. But WiFi, of course. The first pictures of Georgetown 2015 were posted to my website late Saturday night.
In the morning I drove back to Georgetown, made one more circuit, said goodbye to my friends, and called it done. Now for the five hour drive back to Winston-Salem. To get between Georgetown and Winston-Salem, you either have to go through Florence or Conway. Pick your poison.
Georgetown has struggled the last twenty years, as the steel mill's fortunes have fluctuated. The mill was built in 1969 and immediately established a reputation for producing high-quality steel, but shut down in 2003, unable to compete with low-cost imported product. In 2005, it was bought by ISG, which reopened it. ISG merged with the big European conglomerate Arcelor Mittal and it looked like the mill's future was assured, but operations have been spotty, marked by intermittent shutdowns and reduced production in recent years. The mill has been closed since last May. There is also an International Paper facility in town that seems to have a secure future. It employs 600 and has provided some stability to the local economy.
Two years ago, just before the 2013 show, fire destroyed 4 buildings along the waterfront. There was talk of cancelling the show, but the town decided to go ahead with it, and boats were exhibited along the street right in front of the piled debris of the old buildings. People turned out from far and wide to help the town through its bad times, and the show turned out to be a great success. This year, just two weeks before the show, a combination of a stationary front just inland and hurricane Joaquin offshore brought record rainfall to South Carolina, flooding Front Street and many of the stores along it. There was no talk of cancelling the show. The local people pitched in, cleaned up the street, repaired the stores and opened for business.
Many of the shopkeepers along Front Street will tell you - the waterfront stores couldn't survive without the annual show. And many of the exhibitors and visitors will tell you - there is no town more welcoming to the wooden boat fraternity than Georgetown.
Long before the days of heavy industry, tourism and charming shoppes along Front Street, the low country was a center for indigo and cotton cultivation. Then came a period of timbering as the vast acreages of cypress and pine were cut down and milled to provide lumber for the burgeoning cities of the south. And all along, Georgetowners worked the sounds and creeks of the Winyah estuary for shrimp and fish. The last links to the Georgetown of old are the shrimp boats that make out of the harbor and sell their catch at the Independent Seafood Market.
The Georgetown Wooden Boat show is held the weekend of the third Saturday in October every year, and my expectation is that it will be held in 2016, come hell or high water.--Paul M. Clayton