Presented by our friends at Crystal Coast Ecotours
The road to Harkers Island is quiet. Outside of Harlowe, as Highway 70 curves through pine forests and as swampy marshland hugs the Inland Waterway, there is little activity aside from a handful of cars treading past. Modest homes with quirky yard ornaments and mobile homes with neatly-kept lawns flank the road. Canals stretch and open into the North River. Empty Broncos and pickups, having seen brighter days, pepper the shoulder of the road. Their owners wade in glassy water, bailing clams into their miniature skiffs. On an early morning as the sun rises high in the sky, time feels like it’s paused.
Once a small, yet thriving, fishing and boat building community, Harkers Islanders have co-existed symbiotically with their surroundings and each other for generations. Most locals are descendants of the Bankers, a group of early European settlers who settled the area between 1650 and 1700 and lived just across the Core Sound. Devastating ocean storms in 1896 and 1899 compelled Bankers from Diamond City, a former settlement on Shackleford Banks, to move their lives and homes across the sound to Harkers Island with some re-settling in the Promised Land section of Morehead City and in Salter Path. There, they rebuilt their homes and reconstructed a new life.
Over the last century since, Islanders have built their own roads and established eight churches, a school, an electricity cooperative, a firehouse, and a rescue squad with a retrofitted hearse as its first ambulance. If there was a need in the community, neighbors came together to fill it.
Natives are deeply nostalgic for the Harkers Island of their childhood. “Everybody knew my name... We were always around people who knew us and loved us,” says native Joel Hancock, whose family has been on Harkers Island for generations, “We were always community property... I was raised by a village.”
Islanders have traditionally lived a life of subsistence; they worked with their environment and took just what they needed. They have fished for themselves and fished for profit. They have built boats in massive boathouses; they have built boats off tiny creeks in their backyards. They have done both, either or neither depending on the weather and arrival of fish. They have built their homes one wall at a time, one room at a time, one railing at a time, as they could afford it.
At one time, "You didn't have to leave the Island. There was money to be made right here on this island for commercial fishing and boatbuilding," says islander Billy Merkley, "You didn't have to go to town — never. It was a thriving community."
For generations, the unincorporated township survived wholly on commercial fishing and boatbuilding. It was always enough; now, it’s not. New construction, long piers, and shiny fiberglass boats now encircle the island. Second-homers own many of the houses and land once passed through generations of Islanders. Not a single commercial fish house exists on the island today. A commercial boat house is almost as rare.
If the Harkers Island drawbridge acts as the gatekeeper to the five-mile stretch of land it hasn’t been a very discerning one. For the last few decades, folks have come in droves to seek their own paradise on Harkers Island. Who can blame them? On some days day, the waters are so crystal-blue that you’d have to blink twice to believe you weren’t in the Caribbean; the live oaks lining the soundfront view of Shackleford Banks, perfectly weathered from hundreds of years of offshore winds, look like works of art; and the breeze is strong enough to convince you into thinking you could actually enjoy life without air conditioning.
A lot of Islanders blame this bridge from Straits, built in 1941, for the influx of people from “off”, locally known as “dingbatters.” In the beginning, dingbatters were the handful of summer folks from inland who owned modest homes filled with life during the warm months. They were generally accepted as part of the Island's culture. But, the real estate boom of the 1980s brought more people from off who offered money for property unlike anything Islanders had seen before. Many locals started selling their land. Today, many dingbatters’ houses, magnificent in size and stature compared to natives’ homes, stay boarded up throughout the summer save for a holiday week or two.
“It seems now we have the older group of people, and then we have the outside people,” says Islander and retired school teacher, Susanne Yeomans Guthrie. “A lot of these new houses that are here... You don’t really see people in them that much. When we saw them going up I thought they’d be down here all the time.”
Today, natives are grappling with being priced off the island. Many natives cannot afford to pay the taxes on, let alone buy back, their previously sold family land. The movement of natives off the island affects the traditions they hold most dear, including boat building. It’s nearly impossible to make a living building traditional boats anymore. Fiberglass boats are cheaper and faster to make and can be bought in a matter of hours. Commercial fishing in North Carolina has contracted dramatically putting the working class families of Harkers Island, who devoted their lives and work to building boats, at a loss.
Islander Jamie Lewis, who left school in 1955 to build boats, says, “I’ve had something to do right on up until now."
In 2010, Greg Davis, a charter boat operator from Florida asked Jamie and James Lewis, a father and son boatbuilding duo from Harkers Island to build a boat. It was to be built in honor of his father and was to be built in a traditional style passed down through the region for generations.
Davis commissioned the men to craft a traditional round-stern Core Sound-style boat. These boats are iconically Harkers Island. The Lewises have been building boats for a combined 86 years. It’d been years, though, since they’d been asked to build one of these boats.
This boat was to be special. This boat was to be called the Bobby D.
Photos of the Bobby D courtesy of Billy Merkley
Visually stunning and masterfully engineered, the wooden boats of Harkers Island are true works of custom craftsmanship. Formed from juniper, each phase of construction — from the laying of the keel to the framing, planking, sanding, glassing and painting — is done by hand. Remarkably, most boat builders from Harkers Island don’t use blueprints. True artisans, they rely on years of practice and an intuitive knowledge of how to build a proper boat. Jamie Lewis says, “It’s something you learn to do… I’ve done it so long [and] I still make mistakes, but, you know, you’ve got it in your head. [You know] what you’re going to do.”
"I really admire it as an art. I really admire the people who can do that, and I bet there's probably not 25 people left in the world who can do it that way," says Joel Hancock. "If the Smithsonian were coming and wanted to record the Navajo language of Harkers Island... it would be how to cut those timbers without using a written pattern, just doing it by eye."
Boat building is hard, tedious work. You can’t build a wooden boat without bleeding. The 220-grit sandpaper needed to sand a primed boat is so fine that after an hour or two of wet sanding, you may notice a brown-tinged pool of water at your feet. You can shave the tip of your finger off without noticing.
Boat building is in the blood of Harkers Islanders. Their hearts are in the boats they build.
Built in 1946 by Brady Lewis, the Jean Dale is a classic Core Sound round-stern boat. Once used as a working boat, she now rests outside the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Cultural Heritage Center.
It took four years for Jamie and James Lewis to build the Bobby D.
While they worked, Iocals came to see the boat. Boathouse visitors aren’t unusual for the Lewises, but the turnout for the Bobby D was different. The boat brought Islanders, both anchored and adrift, back home to the banks of Harkers Island. People wanted to share memories and to help build the boat. Jamie remembers, “We had a lot of company. We had to quit one day and go home [because] there were so many people in here. It was local people. We were framing it up and we had 10 people in here at one time. All of them telling their own tale.”
Her draw was powerful. She gave Islanders a chance to witness the reincarnation of their most treasured cultural form. The Lewises eventually hung a sign outside the shop saying visitors were welcome after working hours. We asked Jamie why the Bobby D was different. He said, “I guess it’s cause it’s the first round stern that’s been built in a long time.”
The Bobby D hit the water on September 24, 2014. At 45-feet with two 380-horsepower Cummings engines, she ran 35 mph. The launch was for the small community of people who grew to be invested in her story. That quiet morning, reverence, not fanfare, hung in the air.
A boat launching is bittersweet for those who’ve built her. “You hate to see them go, but you’re glad to see them go,” says James. The Bobby D’s launch was particularly bittersweet. Many said the Bobby D was the last of her kind, that she’d be the last round-stern boat built on Harkers Island, ever. Jamie hopes not. “If the man we ever built it for had the patience, I’d like to have another [round stern]” says the 75 year-old, “It would take us awhile to do it with two people. They’re a little bit harder to build.”
Photos of the Bobby D under construction courtesy of Billy Merkley
What lies ahead for the boat-builders of Harkers Island? Do all signs point south? If boat building is at the heart of Harkers Island, but those who made Harkers Island what it was no longer live there — what is to come of this tradition?
Development is progress; it’s as American of an ideal as the Fourth of July. We see it in our coastal and rural communities every day. Over the last thirty years, Harkers Islanders have had the unlucky fate of finding that the value of the ground underneath their feet has skyrocketed through the roof. But with progress, comes loss: loss of culture, loss of land. For Islanders, loss of an entire way of life based on subsistence and the sea that predated most of the earliest European settlements. Loss isn’t anything new to Down Easters. Outside forces, like the hurricanes of 1896 and 1899, have forced them to migrate and rebuild before. Despite the prevalence of loss and displacement, their connection to place, heritage, and community is powerful. It lives on in people like Billy and Landon Merkley.
Billy Merkley and his son, Landon, were frequent visitors to the Bobby D. Billy grew up on Harkers Island and now lives in Gloucester. By day, he works with Carteret County Parks and Recreation, but his real passion centers on the boats of Harkers Island. On weekends, he, Landon, and his wife, Heidi, travel to different marinas along the Atlantic looking for wooden boats. He estimates he’s probably taken 4,000 pictures of the ones they find, and works to trace them back to their original builders. Landon, a rising 8th grader and a talented model-boat builder, has inherited the boat-building blood too.
"There's no schooling for this. It's all old school, passed down. A lot of it's fading, you know," said Billy as he and Landon guided us around the Perfect Landon, an old wooden skiff that currently sits in a workshop behind their house.
Billy acquired the boat 11 years ago, but his relationship to it goes back to the 70s. When he was ten or eleven-years-old, he sat with the channel nets for a summer job from aboard the boat. “She’s got a lot of hard miles on her,” says Billy who has worked on the boat with Landon for years. She is a labor of love. Together, as father and son, the two have maintained the wooden boards that plank her and the 1981 Camaro engine that powers her. With his dad and other Islanders, Landon is learning the art of boat building. He is already a talented model boatbuilder.
We asked Landon if he’d pursue boat building as a career. “I hate to say it, but no. It [costs] too much money,” says Landon, “If it was like it was back in the old days... yeah I would do it. Totally. But now, no way.” Landon aspires to be an engineer, but plans to stay rooted Down East and to keep learning about boat building.
Landon and Billy’s passion for traditional boat building does not go unnoticed. Karen Willis Amspacher, lifelong Harkers Islander, advocate and Executive Director of the Island’s Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, sees that the two are able to stay connected to the Island even though they live off it, and is hopeful. Boatbuilding is in their blood too. They care about heritage, and they practice it. “We’ve got a lot of hope in Landon.That’s where the hope for Harkers Island is,” She says, “It’s in the people [like the Merkleys] who care enough to spend their Sunday afternoons riding around taking pictures [of old boats].”
Boat building is in the blood of Harkers Islanders. Their hearts are in the boats they build.