Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lessons from Core Sound

Way Down East in North Carolina, the backyard boat builders in the watery neighborhoods just off Core Sound have for generations been fashioning works of art out of Atlantic White Cedar, old Chrysler engines and buckets of white paint .  They made Core Sound workboats -- sturdy craft that could ply the often rough, sometimes shallow waters indigenous to Eastern Carolina, pulling out late Sunday and fishing all week and coming back in on Friday to unload, mend nets, take on ice and bait and get ready to head out again.

I was thinking about these fine old craft when I ran across a short piece on the America's Cup sailing races this fall out on the West Coast.  As I've confessed many a time, I'm in love with boats. They have paupered me, driven me to the point of physical exhaustion and challenged me in bad storms, but I am drawn to them as surely as moths to the flame.  Nothing prettier than a graceful sheerline -- that swooping curve of a handsome hull as it swoops back from bow to stern.  Nothing more graceful than a sailing vessel on a brisk wind, reaching round the bend and up the bay. Nothing more peaceful than  sleeping in the V-berth on the hook in a protected anchorage on a quiet night.

But these new America's Cup vessels are ugly descendants of the boatbuilders' arts -- carbon fiber spars and rickety-looking pontoon hulls that despite their ungainly looks can fly along at 40 miles an hour.  I got hooked on sailing at about 8 miles an hour and on workboats that move along at maybe 10 or 12 knots on a following sea.  Those speeds give you time to think about what you are doing and where you are going and, occasionally, even the chance to enjoy yourself.  But 40 miles an hour in a mud-fence-ugly craft that can cost many millions of dollars and, according to one account, collapse in upon itself when the strain from a harsh sea overcomes the engineering feats of these fast sleds, raises a good question: what the hell?

So it is that I picked up up Lawrence S. (Larry) Earley's new book from UNC Press, "The Workboats of Core Sound," with a sense of relief.  It is a loving look at the fishing boats and other craft that came from masters of the building arts way down yonder near the sea and just around the ditch from such places as Thorofare Bay and Cedar Island.

 It still astonishes me what these builders can do with an old handsaw and some beat-up hammers and a few chisels handed down from grandfather to father to son -- and all without written plans. Many of these folks still build by what they call "rack-of-the-eye," maybe with a homemade measuring device called a "story stick" that is used to keep things in perspective as they put together a craft that will minimize the blowback from a cold spray in a nasty chop out on the sound.

Others have written about how they developed the Carolina Flare -- a severe curve in the bow planking that forces spray to the side and not to the stern where fishermen must work all day in a harsh environment.

 Or the iconic Core Sound rounded stern, making it possible for weary fishermen to keep hauling heavy cord nets back into the boat when there are fish to pull in and no time to fool with such things as sharp corners and things that get in the way.

There's one other reason I'm grateful to Core Sound builders.  For years, Core Sound fishermen built crab pots out of heavy gauge wire mesh.  Some years ago they figured out other uses for the wire mesh, and started building and marketing the Core Sound Crabpot Christmas Tree -- foldable, up to 8 feet in height, with as many as 1,000 lights.  We ordered a six-footer in October from our friends at Village Hardware in Oriental, just off the lower Neuse River, and got it lit up on the deck.  Here's how that Core Sounder looks at about 3,100 feet elevation.  And Merry Christmas!


1 comment:

  1. Dear Captain Flotsam,
    As an avid fan of the new America's Cup race machines I take issue ;) with your antiquated, doldrum inspired, overly romanticized account of sailing, all the while rejecting the best thing to happen to sailing in 20 years. Like many, as a young boy I learned to sail in Optis, cute, barely seaworthy and decidedly slow. Spending summer's in Wrightsville Beach, NC, sailing Sunfish, Laser and Fireball boats, I always wished for days of 14+knot SW sea breezes so I could sail in the Atlantic, often with friends, surfing the swell just outside Masonboro Inlet on a broad reach. The thrill of surfing in a small boat was followed by the rise of Windsurfing in the 1980s and a frustrated college obsession to learn the sport. In the 1990s I bought my first windsurfer and became addicted to the exhilarating rush of skipping across waves at 20+MPH powered by the wind alone! Thanks to Hobie Alter, Jim Drake and Gijsbertus Adrianus Panhuise (catamaran, windsurfing and kitesurfing inventors/developers respectively) sailing has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and participation over the past 40 years supplying seafaring adrenalin junkies with water-borne rocket sleds that can test the nerve and physical ability of the sailors piloting them. Over the last 15 years windsurfers and more recently kite surfers have been vieing for the title of fastest sailing craft, pushing the 50knot! mark in craft costing just a few thousand dollars. In 2012 Vestas SailRocket 2 (in a not so affordable craft) set a new sail record of 65 knots! Advances in composite technology have created fast, affordable catamarans and skiffs which provide excitement and thrills for trailing boomers (me) and X generation and younger folks. It is this which will keep sailing alive by attracting the short attention span young to the thrill of sailing so that when they are 40 years older they will have become infected as Captain Flotsam and I have and able to appreciate the beauty and charm of fast and slow sailing craft. As for the recent America's Cup, love him or hate him, Larry Ellison has undeniably left a profound mark on sailing, I think, for the better by making sailboat racing a spectator sport. Prior America's Cup races were run many miles offshore, viewed live and in person by a few hundred wealthy on their yachts nearby, and seldom covered via live television. With the America's Cup World Series touring the world and racing the 45 foot little brothers to the 75 foot America's Cup boats, millions were able to see live or via televised coverage near-shore racing of these fast, exciting catamarans by four international teams in windy venues. Our family traveled to Newport, RI to thrill among tens of thousands of enthusiasts on shore to drama that ensued with reaching, full speed starts where all boats converged in 1km to a gybe mark! WATCHING sailboat racing was now fun! The same sentiment has been shared by the millions, many who don't sail and have never watched sailboat racing, as Oracle Team USA, using skill and boat refinements powered by optimization routines running on supercomputers, dug out from a 8-1 point deficit and survived 8 match point races in a row to defend the America's Cup in what is now recognized as the most impressive come from behind win in all of sport's history! I hope many reading this will take a tour on YouTube of a summary of the America's Cup 2013 and marvel at the beautiful machines which can travel at almost three times the speed of the wind, and be in awe of the skill, strength and stamina required to race these hyper-tuned, foil-flying sailboats of the future. While the debate rages on regarding the next America's Cup, the boats, the site, the cost and the teams, I think there is no going back to the slow, albeit romantic, boats of yesteryear. Hear's to the America's Cup, the old, elegant boats of yore AND the exciting, high spirited sailing craft of the future! May they all lead others to share our love of sailing!