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  • Lessons of Core Sound Workboats
  • Lawrence S. Earley (bio)

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"Haul Boat and Shack, 2006."

[End Page 86]

Core Sound is a shallow body of water in eastern North Carolina that carries the Core Sound National Seashore on its eastern shoulder and the Carteret County peninsula on its west. Between Beaufort, the mainland town that has prettied itself up over recent decades, and Cedar Island, a jumping-off point by ferry for the tourist destination of Ocracoke, a handful of small fishing villages comprise the area locally known as "Down East."

For more than two centuries the people of Core Sound have lived off the bounty of the Sound and the sea. To negotiate Core Sound's notorious shoals and exploit its rich fisheries, they built shallow-draft vessels—versatile and adaptable boats that could be converted from haul boat to run boat and back again. In recent decades these boats could long-haul for trout from spring to fall, trawl for shrimp in summer, and kick clams or oysters in winter.

When I talked with Core Sound residents, what I had often photographed as purely artistic compositions—boat, marsh, the Sound as landscape—became cultural documents loaded with significance and complexity. Primarily, of course, a boat is a physical object built and used for practical ends. A fisherman is rarely sentimental about his boat; it's useful for as long as it enables him to make a living. When the boat ceases to be useful, it can be sold or stripped of its assets and towed to a marsh where, in time, it "falls to pieces." Yet fishermen and their families also can be very tender about a boat. One woman recalled how her father would go to his boat every night after supper to wash it down, paint, mend net, or tinker with the engine. Her mother would smile as he went out and say, "He's got to go tell her goodnight." Another woman teared up when describing a boat her husband sold. "Selling a boat," she said, "is like a death in the family."

Fishermen themselves size up a boat quickly and with an intrinsic aesthetic appreciation. Some boats are "pretty boats";" others are "ugly" or "awkward looking" if they don't seem to hit the mark. Harkers Island fishermen will often declare that their boats are "prettier" than Atlantic boats, and some Atlantic natives agree, although others offer a kind of backhanded compliment. "The Atlanticers, we weren't really concerned about how pretty [a boat] was," explained one boat-builder. "We were more concerned about how it worked." Indeed, a workboat is not only a distinctive expression of the builder but also of a community. In addition to Atlantic and Harkers Island styles of workboats, there also is a Marshallberg style, each defined by a master craftsman at some point in their community history, although there would be variations within that community. "I can look at a boat and tell where it was built," the boatbuilder told me. "Most of the time, I can look at a boat and tell who built it."

Thus, a Core Sound workboat is a link in the social and historical web of Down East communities. This small social web widens over time with the addition of new owners, mechanics, painters, carpenters, captains, and crew members from several other communities, across three generations, and it seems to be part of the [End Page 87]

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"Linda (detail), 2005." The rounded sterns of Core Sound boats, designed to enable fishermen to haul their nets in without getting snagged on corners, are fairly typical of the region.

common memory, recalled with surprising ease. From these photographs, residents could identify a boat by name, owner, builder, and the boat's namesake.

When I ask fishermen how they know so many of the same stories about a particular boat, they often refer to the closeness with which they work on the water. Although fishermen are independent sorts, leaving before dawn and returning after dark (sometimes remaining away for several days), they are very aware of each other. Peering across the sound in...


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