Harkers Island , NC Boatbuilding

What happened to the skiffs?

Joel Hancock

December 23, 1990

Leaving the Island this morning to go to Morehead, I noticed that the Refuge Harbor was "packed full" of boats. Every slip was taken, the nets secured, while the fishermen who owned and worked them retired for the Christmas holiday.

The sight was somewhat unsettling for a couple of reasons. First, because very few croakers have been caught so far this winter. From what I have heard, the fishermen have had only one good catch since the end of November when the season supposedly began. Usually the month from Thanksgiving and Christmas is the best four weeks of the year for gill netters.

Several years ago, when I was fishing with my brother Michael, we caught a "boat load" of croakers almost every day for two weeks running. It was pretty much a standing joke that every time someone showed a good sigh of croakers he would call home on the C.B. radio and tell his wife to "go ahead and send that order off to Sears Roebuck," meaning that he now would have money to pay for the C.O.D. packages once they arrived. This year, for whatever may be the reason, very few Christmas packages will be paid for by money made selling croakers.
Secondly, and even more troubling to me, was the thought that all the boats gathered in the Refuge Harbor, and in the several other small bays on the back (north) side of Harkers Island, meant that few, if any, boats remained moored at the landing, the way they all were when I was a boy.

In those days, every fisherman had his boat anchored or tied along the shore directly in front of his home, or at least the path that led there. All along the south side of the Island, from Shell Point to Red Hill, the fishing boats lined up like some primitive armada.

Prevailing southwesters in the warmer months kept their sterns facing the shore, each one emblazoned with a special name, peculiar to the man and the family for which the boat was the main source of income. Dallas Rose's boat was called the "Wasted Wood," for that was what he categorized it as being. Others had names like "We Four," "The Boys," "Seven Brothers," "Barbara," and at my daddy's landing, the "Ralph." The "Ralph" was named for my oldest brother who had been my father's first (and probably his favorite) crew member. Most of the boats were spoken of as if they were a person, always using the feminine pronoun. The family's fishing boat was, in a very real sense, a part of the family.

The boats were generally moored between one and two hundred feet offshore. For that reason they required something that many fishermen now can do without; a skiff. Twelve to fifteen "foot" skiffs were pulled up almost everywhere along the south shore of the Island. There probably were more skiffs than there were real fishing boats. Not everyone could afford a big boat, but almost anyone could have his very own skiff.

Fishermen used skiffs to get from the shore to his boat. It generally was light enough to enable one man to pull it up on dry land all by himself, especially if he used rollers. Others left their skiffs tied or anchored only a few feet beyond the tidal line so rolled-up pants were all that were needed to wade to the skiff, even at high tide.

Skiffs also served as readily available "pack horses" that could be pulled behind bigger boats to carry nets, drags, or rakes used by the commercial fishermen as well as the fish, clams, oysters, or scallops that they might catch. It could even be used to ferry a banks pony back and forth between Shackleford Banks and the Island if a young boy's pleading yielded the desired results.

Harkers Island skiffs were all pretty much the same. Some were just a little bigger or smaller than others. The had no flare or deadrise, being the truest of "flat-bottomed" boats. Each one had at least one oar, generally about eight feet in length; just enough to push off the bottom anywhere on this side of the channel. They were outfitted with an iron anchor and fifty feet of sisal rope that ran through a small hole cut into the small front deck.
The skiffs almost always were made of juniper, the lightest native wood available, to make them all the easier to pull ashore or back into the sound. For convenience in building, they generally were "cross-planked," a construction method much simpler than the length-wise planking used in bigger boats. They generally had at least one thwart seat, which everyone called simply a "thaught." This "thaught" also strengthened the sides of the boat by serving as a cross beam.

There was at least one other feature common to every Island skiff; a bailer. Long ago they were made of wood with a protruding handle. Beginning in the mid 60's the wooden bailers were replaced by plastic containers, generally Clorox bottles, with the bottom and part of one side cut out.

Bailing involved much more than just scooping up water and pouring it over the side. Experienced bailers (the men or boys who used bailers were themselves called bailers) could remove water from a skiff much faster than the modern bilge-pumps that since have taken their place. A fast and steady sweeping motion kept at least one bale of water suspended in air all the time. From a distance it might have appeared that a large suction pump was spitting a steady stream of water from the bilge of the boat.

One trick that every bailer soon discovered was that bailing was much easier, and more efficient, when done with the wind. It didn't do much good to throw a gallon of water into the air if a blustering southwester returned most of it to the boat (and the bailer's face.)

Oaring, or "polling" the skiff was another art that was much refined by those who used skiffs on a regular basis. Working from the leeward stern, the oarsman could move a skiff fast enough to throw a real wake. Two oarsman working together could raise a "cattail." Before gasoline powered boats became more common, local watermen polled their skiffs everywhere along the Island shore. Some even "shoved" as far as Beaufort or Davis' Island. Luther Willis became renowned for his oaring skills and speed. It was said that he could poll to Beaufort faster than others could go in a sailskiff.

Most Island boys, including me, got their first real exposure to boating in a skiff. The skiff became their training ground for setting nets and raking for clams as well as for polling itself. Being able to shove a skiff in four different directions without ever changing places was very much a right of passage for any youngster who hoped one day to be real waterman.

But now-a-days its hard to find a real skiff any more. Fishermen now drive their pickup to the harbor and jump into their boat from a dock or wharf. The few skiffs that remain are almost exclusively reserved for channel-netters and long haulers who use them to transport long nets and staffs.

The boats all tied up together at Refuge harbor may make a postcard scene to someone who wants a picture of the fishing boats at rest for the Holidays. But to at least one observer, they serve as yet another reminder of way of life that is passing away all too soon.

Reprinted from the MAILBOAT, Winter 1991, Vol. 1, No. 4

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