This is the 8th 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.”
In this photograph we see the Dough family’s boatyard on the north end of Roanoke Island, N.C., ca. 1930. A shad boat is being “framed up.” One of master shad boat builder Otis Dough’s sons, probably Worden Dough, is working on a spar. Following in their father’s footsteps, all three of his sons—Worden, Horace and Lee—built shad boats.
The Dough family’s boatyard was located on the north end of Roanoke Island, apparently where a parking lot for the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is now located.
Around the yard we can see the boat’s keel and a pile of leftover planks.
Mike and Earl interpreted this scene for me:
In building a shad boat, they explained, the Doughs and other local builders set up three “stations” when they finished cutting the keel. Those builders sprang temporary rib bands around the three stations and the stem and stern. Those bands defined the shape of the boat.
“Station” is actually a naval architect’s term. Shad boat builders would more likely have called each of them a “stretcher frame.”
Once the builders got the stations or stretcher frames in place, they began “planking up”— or really, at least on Roanoke Island, “planking down.” That means the builders added planks to the boat’s hull by starting at the top and working down.
A shad boat was a very specific type of boat, but every boat was still unique and had its own character.
A century ago, any Roanoke Island boat builder and any fisherman with an eye for detail would have recognized a shad boat’s builder even when seeing the boat at a good distance.
That is of course no longer true today. I imagine only a handful of people, if that many, has any chance of identifying a shad boat’s maker when they look at an old photograph or when they see one of the few surviving shad boats.
For Earl and Mike, on the other hand, it is second nature. I have seen them do it many times when they are looking at historical photographs of shad boats or at an old shad boat abandoned in the woods or a salt marsh.
They can’t always do it, but in many cases they can look at the shape of a boat’s transom, the grace of its lines or some other hallmark and recognize a particular boat builder’s work.
Another, more cosmetic but interesting trait that distinguished shad boats was the stripes that builders painted on their gunwales.
Builders typically painted a boat’s hull and interior white or nautical gray, though Earl’s interviews indicate that at least a couple of shad boats had green hulls and one, Albert Etheridge’s oddly-named Jim Crow, was black.
The striping on a shad boat’s gunwale though was more diverse. Builders painted the gunwale in unique patterns of stripes chosen from several colors—red, black, green, blue and yellow.
Some of Roanoke Island’s old timers told Earl that, when they were young, they could look at a shad boat in the distance and identify a fisherman and/or what community he was from by the pattern and color of the stripes on his boat.
That’s all for today’s post. In my next post, I’ll be looking at the shad boat’s sails and rigging, including one of its most unique features– the boat’s topsail, or “goose wing,” that was unlike any other traditional work boat built in the U.S.