Category Archives: Down East NC

Gone to Pieces

The decay and ultimate demise of a wooden fishing boat is a sad spectacle, although fishermen themselves generally are not very sentimental about their boats. Fishermen value a boat as long as it can do the work that it was built for. When it can’t, a boat has no value and is often stripped of its hardware and craned ashore where it can be taken to the dump. In the past, a fisherman might abandon a boat in a marsh or even burn it.

I first photographed the Linda in 1985. In that photo (below), she was tied up at the dock of Luther L. Smith & Son fish house in the Down East town of Atlantic in North Carolina. She was built by Ambrose Fulcher of Atlantic in 1939 as a runboat for the long-haul fishing trade, but she also shrimped (as can be seen by her shrimp nets), clammed and crabbed. She was a versatile boat.


Linda (at dock) in Atlantic NC in 1985 (all photos © Lawrence Earley).

Twenty years later (2005), I photographed Linda again at the Smith fish house. In the photograph she is obviously near the end of her working career.


Linda in 2005

I photographed Linda from 2005 until 2011 as she literally went to pieces. Her bilge pump failed in 2007 and in 2011, she was destroyed by Hurricane Irene.


Linda in 2006


Linda in 2008


Linda in 2010

Battered by the sea and by storms, wooden fishing boats have only a limited lease on life. Linda had unusually long and useful life on the water—a workboat built in 1939 is lucky to have lasted as long as she did. But she will be remembered. Like all old workboats, Linda played an important role by linking people, families and communities in a web of stories and memories. The stories and memories associated with a boat are like family tales told around the dinner table and passed down from one generation to another. They are as important to community life as family stories are to family life.


Linda destroyed by hurricane in 2011


The Stories I Heard

One might well ask me why I spent much of the last eight years working on a book about old boats. Kenneth Grahame answered that question one way long ago in the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows:  “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

A lot of people would agree with that, but it wasn’t the “messing about” in boats that drew me Down East time and again.  The stories were the draw. I spent time in a lot of living rooms listening to stories about fishermen and boatbuilders and their boats.  I was amazed at how easily people could recall intimate details about the boats—who built them, where, when, who they were sold to, what happened to them. The stories were what kept me coming back.

Wasted Wood, Atlantic, 1985

Wasted Wood, Atlantic, 1985

I asked David Smith of Atlantic why his father’s boat was called Wasted Wood.  He said: “The Wasted Wood was named the David M. and that was my name. But they always called it the Wasted Wood because she had great big timbers.  Will Mason wasted a lot of wood when he built that boat.  The name just stuck, that’s what it was always called.  It sounds funny when you say the name of the boat was the Wasted Wood. People kind of laugh. But growing up, that was the name of it; there wasn’t anything funny about it.”

Some of the stories had little to do with the boats and more to do with the person himself or herself, with the way they looked at things or with their sense of humor.  Crab-house owner and born story-teller John Paul Lewis of Davis told me this delightful tale about a man from Atlantic long ago:  “A lot of our boats went to Norfolk.  One man [had a] boat named the Louise, and she was built in the early twenties, probably. But he went to Norfolk and kept her tied up to the Atlantic Ice Company, right where the ferry crossed from Portsmouth to Norfolk, East Main St.  And I’d take shrimp there to be frozen in the fall and he got to be a very good friend of mine.  And he stayed in Norfolk twenty years on the Louise.  He kept her up and painted her.  And when he came back to Atlantic  he walked across the road to his wife’s house, and said, ‘What’re we having for supper?'”

The late Milan Willis of Atlantic said that he had joined the Navy during the Second World War.  “I didn’t go in because I was patriotic,” he said.  “I went in because I was digging clams for 40 cents a bushel and I thought the Navy would be better, which was a mistake.  The clamming was better.”

J.M. Brown of Gloucester responded to my question about the difficulty of building a boat alone in this way. “It’s hard to do much boatwork by yourself,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.  “You need someone to hold the end of something, you know.”


A Visit To Atlantic

I try to visit with my friends in Atlantic and other communities Down East as often as I can.  They’ve put up with a lot from me as I was working on my book, The Workboats of Core Sound:  Stories and Photographs of a Changing World (available in Oct. 2013).  I’d sit with them or go out on their fishing boats and ask things like, “I know you’ve told me already, but how does the back net work in your long-haul rig?”

I dropped over to see Buster Salter and his wife Carol in early June.  He was home on an off week from his job on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry.  Buster was a long-haul fisherman when I first came to Atlantic, and he invited me to go fishing with him once or twice to try to understand how his pretty boats danced with each other as they netted fish.

Buster and Carol Salter

Buster and Carol Salter

A couple of years ago I was delighted to hear Buster recite from memory Robert Frost’s “The Path Not Taken.”  He says that he prints out poems from the Internet, and then memorizes them a few lines at a time while piloting the ferry.  He’s memorized some poetry by Robert Frost, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Cullen Bryant among others.  If my memory serves, when Marvin Robinson died some years ago, Buster recited Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” at his funeral.  “Sunset and evening star, / And one clear call for me! / And may there be no moaning of the / bar, / When I put out to sea.”  Carole told me about a long William Cullen Bryant poem he memorized:  “It was about a thousand words!” she said.

It’s embarrassing that the first thing that springs to mind when I think of poetry I’ve memorized is a bit of doggerel I  learned in 8th grade:  “Abu Ben Adam (may his tribe increase) / Woke up one morning from a deep dream of peace.”  Which, of course, we amended to “Woke up one morning in a deep pot of grease.”  Where are the lines from Virgil I memorized?  Where are the sonnets from Shakespeare?

Danny Mason was busy with the geese and chickens and black ducks in his backyard pen when I was in Sea Level recently.  Used to be Danny and Buster both started long-haul fishing in May and finished up in October, but these days with the price of fuel so high and the chances of catching fish so low Danny does other things in May,  even into June.  Like repairing the gate on his pen.  Like painting his boats and tarring his nets.  But he was finished now and anxious to begin fishing this spring.  Best of all, he has a crew ready to go.

Danny Mason

Danny Mason

That was a Thursday, but he would wait until Monday to fish because of a tropical storm brewing off the coast. When I went to get lunch at the grill in Atlantic later that day, the wind was driving the white tops across Core Sound.  The boats’ rigging in Atlantic Harbor sang in the blasts.