Earl Willis, Jr.’s Sketch of a Shad Boat

This is the 6th part of my special series “The Story of Shad Boats.” The series features Earl Willis, Jr. and Mike Alford’s extraordinary journey to document the history of North Carolina’s “state boat.” 

Today’s post is going to be brief. I just want to share a rough sketch of a shad boat’s interior arrangement that Earl Willis, Jr. drew in the 1980s. The sketch reflects the nomenclature and general layout of a typical shad boat as his uncle, Joe Meekins, and other shad boat builders described them to him.

As you can see, Earl’s sketch includes the common names for the basic parts of the boat’s interior: the cap, the ballast room, forward thwart, mast bench, centerboard and so forth.

This was a work-in-progress and you can tell that Earl was still learning, revising and re-thinking.

The asterisks, for instance, indicate working terms that he used to indicate parts of the boat’s interior that his sources could not recall or perhaps they simply didn’t have special names.

Earl’s footnote number “1” next to the word “Forward” denotes that some builders used the term “anchor room” instead of “forward.”

Also, his Uncle Joe Meekins and Mr. Vernon Gaskill  later told him that they referred to the “after thwart,” not the “aft thwart” as in this sketch. They also referred to the room between the tucking thwart and the stern sheet as the cockpit as on other small boats.

Pound Netters and Stake Boats

Earl’s drawing doesn’t include a scale, but shad boats ranged from 22 to roughly 30 feet in length.

If ordering a shad boat primarily for pound netting, local fishermen usually wanted a boat that was roughly 23 or 24 feet long. That was the size of a typical pound net’s crib and they could move comfortably in and around the crib if their boats were that size.

The Rise of Pound Netting in the 1870s

I should note: the rise of shad boats and the rise of pound netting both occurred in the 1870s and ’80s and I can’t help wondering if they didn’t shape one another’s development in ways that I may not fully appreciate yet.

Apparently first introduced to Albemarle Sound fisheries ca. 1870 by a fisherman from Pennsylvania that had used them on Lake Erie, pound nets grew in popularity at an astonishing rate.

According to the June 16, 1893 edition of the Economist-Falcon, an Elizabeth City newspaper, the number of pound nets in North Carolina skyrocketed from 117 in 1880 to 950 in 1890.

Some shad boats were a little larger. Builders constructed larger shad boats to fish gill nets, which were typically set “down the sound” in deeper water. Those boats were often 26-28 feet in length.

“Stake boats” were also shad boats in that range or even a little larger.  Fishermen used them to carry their pound net stakes out to the fishing grounds at the beginning of the season.

Fishermen used the stakes to build the rigid framework around which the netting was attached.

Generally speaking, pound netters tarred their nets and prepared their stakes in January and then carried them out into the sound as soon as the threat of a freeze had passed, usually in late February.

The pound netting season ended in late April or early May, and the gill netters finished up a little earlier.

The Language of the Vikings

Geeky fact of the day: you’ll notice that Earl uses the word thwart several times in his drawing of the shad boat.

A thwart is of course a structural crosspiece that on a shad boat doubled as a seat and as the mast bench.

As with a striking number of other words related to boats, fishing and sailing, the word thwart entered the English language from Old Norse. That was most likely during Viking rule in England in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Our modern English word “thwart” comes from the Old Norse thvert.

Other English nautical terms derived from Old Norse or related Scandinavian languages include keel, rig, tug, ferry, raft, dredge, drag (as in a fisherman’s drag-line), wake, reef (as one does to a sail), bait, cast (as in a net or a fishing line) and skid (as used in boatyards).

Even in the words we speak, the sea ties us to distant shores.

That’s all for today. In my next post, I’ll be looking at one of a shad boat builder’s hardest jobs– finding the right size and shape of juniper root knees for building the boat’s unique keel.

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