It was a Saturday morning that I decided it was time to get out of bed and work my way to the Gulf Coast Wooden & Classic Boat Show. The show is held at the same dock that they have their two sister schooners. I got dressed and packed up the small amount of things I thought necessary to bring with me and headed off in the direction. As I pulled up I realized that it may not open for about 18 minutes so I awkwardly sat in my car and watched as people pulled in and walked across the street through the gate and into the show. At first thinking it was the boat owners noticing that they did not pay to enter or even stop at the ticket table. So after watching for a few minutes I thought whats the worst that could happen and made my way across the separated four lane road that follows the Biloxi coast.
A glance out to the water were the past a few of the boats were “Glenn L. Swetman” and the “Mike Sekul” the two Biloxi Schooners. “The Glenn L” was built by Bill Holland. I thought back to just a few weeks prior where I was able to observe and talk with Bill Holland a Master Boatbuilder in D’Iberville,MS.
I found Bill through a post I had on Woodenboat Magazine’s Facebook page, Bill’s daughter sent me a message and we set up a time for me to come over. I did some research on Bill and was not sure of how this was going to go. I ended up spending an entire day at Bill’s boat yard watching him loft a replication project, listening to him talk about all the boats he built and even meeting one of his customers who not only talked very highly of Bill but also brought me on a tour of his personal boat showing me how Bill meticulously crafted each piece. It was a great experience meeting with Bill and his family and friends but I was about to see a few more ‘Bills’ and many other boat owners proud to show off their boats.
I entered after paying my five dollar entry fee only to realize that I was one of only a handful that have entered. Oh well, this will make it easier to take photos and get close to the vessels. I worked my way around the trailered vessels that were at the front of the show inside the parking lot that normally serves the dock. It not stood as a parking lot for some tremendous vessels. They all had their stance, almost as if they were built for where they currently sat. It seemed like they were moving, pressing just to have a hint of water hit their bows and move on over the horizon.
The craftsmanship was also present. You could not turn your head without seeing something different. The different types of wood, construction methods, and ways the vessels were painted. Overwhelmed as this was my first wood and classic boat show I decided not to take pictures yet, but press on to the dock and see the vessels tied up as though they were stallions just waiting to get out to the open pasture of the sea.
The feeling of being overwhelmed did not falter too long as I entered into the dock area I could smell the sea, hear the laughter of captains and feel the presence of great shipbuilders ghosts. I would love to type the process, following me through the docks as I looked and visited with each person, but that is not possible. I met some great people who showed me their boats with pride. This pride was not that of someone who has something I do not, it was pride to show craftsmanship and being of these great vessels that stood before us today. Almost all of the captains acted as though they were custodians of the history only to keep it running so they may pass it on to the next generation.
I soon ran into a boat modeler (I apologize I do not remember his name) who was so passionate about the vessels surrounding us I could not help but tell him my story. I was here as an Indiana boy trying to learn all I could not just from the Air Force but from the boat builders and makers in the area. Any knowledge that I could take in now would be of great use later if I were to decide to build my own boat. Although even if I never touched another boat again the experience of working with a boat builder would a great addition to not just the physical tools that I possess but the mental tools of working with wood and other materials to gain the proper outcome.
He showed me around the boats and told be of a boat builder that I should contact. At the time of our conversation the boat builder by the name of Buddy was no where around. I left the model builder to his own and told him I would check back in later and see if he had a chance to see Buddy. Although I knew from earlier happenings on WoodenBoat’s Facebook page that Buddy was well known in these areas I could not but help to think that there is no way after meeting Bill Holland that there would be another boat builder that would allow me to see them work.
I worked my way back to the concrete pad of greatness to pruse.
As I walked around this particular 16′ Runabout a man walked up behind me and said “I was told there was a man wearing a red shirt and sunglasses that wants to help with some boat building. Is that you?” I turned around and quickly answered yes and shook his hand.
We quickly hit it off and he invited me to follow him through the show and offered to show me some of the works of his Grandfather, Covacevich. We walked and talked together for a few hours. Buddy was great about answering all of the questions that I had and if there was a way to show me on an existing boat he found a way. A few times I would point something out and he would push further into the issue ensuring full understanding on my part. I had a great time discussing with him and watching him talk to other boat builders and enthusiasts. Of course I knew I was with the right guy when we could not turn a bend without someone stopping us to shake his hand or ask him a question.
As our time seemed to expire as the requests for his attention grew I offered Buddy a farewell and told him I would contact him in the future to help him out in anyway he may need in his boatyard.
I walked away from Buddy and watched as if people around us knew his attention was no longer focused on me but open for grabs. I hope to talk and work with Buddy soon and hope to see him in his natural environment of his shop. When someone knows you for only a few minutes and says to you “Well Chris if I cannot be there, I can just give you a key to the shop and you can do some work while I am away” you know them as a trustful and true maker that just wants to offer all the knowledge he has and pass it on to everyone he meets so that the greatness of wooden boats and maritime history can continue.
Working in the Boatyard with Buddy
I called him around noon and we were not able to connect. Later in the afternoon, Buddy called me back and we talked a bit before he gave me directions to his workshop. I would not say that it is in some discrete place, because you can see it from the highway but it does take a bit of guidance in order to get to the correct road that leads to the unmarked shop behind a shopping center. I pulled into the drive, immediately greeted by a large vessel on blocks with another peeking from behind it and two others sitting around them. I was not sure what to expect so what I saw was very impressive as the projects were clearly on display for everyone to see as they drove past.
Buddy was cheerful as he was when I left him at the Gulf Coast Wooden & Classic Boat Show, he quickly showed me around as he gathered tools for his next task. He was about to remove a piece of the existing ‘pilot house’ (not really sure of the correct terminology), the overall goal was to remove the entire ‘pilot house’ in order to restore the vessel to near original condition. This particular vessel has an approximate build date of 1895. Well the piece Buddy was working on was filled with carpenter bees, as many of you know I would be glad to go into battle and/or stop a vehicle on the highway alone in the middle of the night before I ever messed with a bee. I watched as he removed the piece being ever so careful not to disturb the bees and their home. I took the time as he completed his task to walk around the yard and take some photos of vessels within it.
After he removed the board and placed it on the bow of the boat, he showed me around the boat displaying certain features. The amazing part of viewing a boat like this on dry land, it still looked like it was moving smoothly through the water. Each feature could be envisioned in its original condition, imagining the times in which this vessel was in its prime.
I was offered the opportunity to work side-by-side with Buddy in the boat. My task was to clear out the ‘belly’ of the boat and the leaves and debris that had filled in the voids not allowing for water to drain properly causing some rot currently and more in the future. I used a vacuum and sucked all the debris freeing up some open space so the water when it rained to drain in a proper fashion. As I did this Buddy continued to work on removing the ‘pilot house’. After about thirty minutes I finished my first task, soaked with sweat from the Mississippi sun. The humidity and sun had been beating me the whole time but I did not think much of it until stopping.
We took a water break as Buddy showed me his prized source of ice cold drinking water, a drinking fountain fixed to the wall inside of his shop. I drank the water I had brought with me and filled up my bottle a few times before going back to the boat for more work. Buddy was of course already at work again at his previous task. I realized then that this Indiana guy was not going to get very far with the heat, but I continued on as not to give up a chance to not be apart of this experience.
We started then to work on the coaming, removing the large cypress boats from the boat. It was amazing that these boards were still affixed so strong still that we were using hammers and crow bars to pry them from their locations. Either way we finished up remo`ving both coaming boards and it was time for another break for me. During this break I took the time to take some photos of the area and some of Buddy’s other projects.
Each piece, part, or whole vessel had a story embedded into not only the area but also Buddy. It did not take much to realize that we as builders, no matter what the finished product is, have a passion to share what we know and want others to appreciate the things we work on at the same level we do. Although I am new to maritime crafting, I feel like I was able to appreciate the environment, product, and passion that Buddy was showing me about his craft. Again a great day of building, well in this case disassembling, with a master boatbuilder. I planed to continue to work with Buddy as much as I could in my downtime, trying to learn as much as I can before I return back north. Unfortunately, I was never able to get back to Buddy’s yard or even contact him.
About four weeks later I passed Buddy’s yard heading North on my venture home. I thought about all of the stories and places I was able to go while in Biloxi and the surrounding area and really enjoyed the experiences. Now it was time for me to make some of my own creations and pass on the skills to my sons and those around me in Indiana.