Briant Gillikin leaning on a mullet boat by a dune on the ocean side of Brown’s Island. A cotton seine, with the warp folded on top, rests in the stern, so that the boat is ready for launching at the lookout’s cry of “Bo-at, bo-at, bo-at!” The old fisherman is wearing worn denim trousers, blanched by exposure to sun and saltwater, and a fedora. A long wooden beam, one of two used to carry the boat into the surf, rests at his feet.
Behind the boat are net spreads, typically made of ash, with a smaller net, probably a gill net for spot fishing, draped over the spread on the far left.
This is the 8th in a series of Charles A. Farrell’s photographs from Brown’s Island, in Onslow County, N.C., in 1938.
The fishermen doused their cotton nets with lime every day to discourage rot from saltwater and sun exposure, but with the same purpose in mind also dried them on the net spreads on down days.
The fishermen’s nets may have been knit by hand in Otway or may have been factory made; the late 1930s was just at the cusp of a widespread change from handmade to factory-made fishing nets in the mullet fishery.
If handmade, the seine had been knit, Henry Frost, an 80-year-old mullet fisherman at Bogue Banks, told me, by “the mothers and grandmothers in their homes in the wintertime.”
The mullet boat on which Briant Gillikin is leaning is clinker (lapstreak)-built, made of local juniper, double-ended (pointed at bow and stern) and roughly 26 feet in length.
She is lightly built, but strong: designed to be light enough for a crew of men to pick up and move quickly down the beach and into the surf, but strong enough to crash through breaking waves and carry a 350 to 450-yard-long seine and a crew of five or six men.
Watermen had long used boats of similar design and construction when they needed to work on the ocean side of the state’s barrier islands. As early as the 18th century, they used them as pilot boats, carrying local pilots to seagoing vessels waiting offshore.
Fishermen later used such boats for whaling on Shackleford Banks, a barrier island to the east, and for dolphin hunting between Hatteras Island and Bogue Banks. Similarly, U.S. Lifesaving Service and U.S. Coast Guard crews used boats of this design to reach shipwreck victims in the surf.
Though professional boatbuilding shops in New England built boats of this kind in large numbers, a slight casualness of construction betrays that this boat was local built, probably in a fisherman’s backyard in or around Otway. Note the varying widths of the planking, particularly low and forward.
When asked to evaluate this boat’s seaworthiness, Mike Alford, the retired curator of traditional workboats at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, N.C., stressed nonetheless that the boat was a well-built and highly functional craft. She was as sturdy and handy as the finest of the U.S. Coast Guard’s boats, he said, just not made to look as pretty.
Tomorrow- striking mullet