The Garvey by Edward Lukacs
This week's Wooden Boat Wednesday offers an essay written by Edward Lukacs titled, "The Garvey," from 2007, which this month he says gives "a reminiscence, really, of my search for a new one some 48 years ago." Reprinted with permission.
It was a cold morning in November 1972. The young boatman slowly drove down Route 9 into southern Ocean County, New Jersey. He was searching for something special, a new boat, a garvey. And there was nowhere else on earth that he might find one but near the Barnegat Bay, where the design had been developed and refined by generations of baymen.
Garveys are flat-bowed boats intended for fishing and crabbing in the inland waters and among the thoroughfares and sedges of southern New Jersey's coastal bays. And there are wide variations among them, perhaps as many designs and preferences as there are baymen.
At every creek south of Toms River, he turned off the highway, following the narrow roads that ran alongside the meandering streams through the sedges toward the bay. Some local baymen supplemented their income during the winter by building these local water craft to sell.
Here and there, he saw a brand new boat sitting inside an open shed door or sitting on a home-made trailer or even atop a few concrete blocks, the hull cushioned on two by fours. In every case, he looked at the boat critically, but none were quite right.
Garvey lovers are almost fanatically fussy about their taste in their favorite craft. Show a Mantoloking crabber a garvey built twenty miles away in Forked river and he'll tell you it's far too extravagant in lines, too high in freeboard and to broad in the beam to be any good. That's because the boat is too broad and deep for crabbing and netting in the shallows and the narrow passages through the sedge prevalent in his part of the bay.
Show a Forked River bayman a Mantoloking boat and he'll tell you it hasn't got any lines, it's too straight in the shear, and not high or beamy enough to be safe in a chop, common in the broader, deeper bay waters that he fishes. His boat will have a lot of curve in the sheer line and a higher and narrower bow than a Mantoloking boat. It will have more beam so it is more stable as he dips his rake over the side to harvest clams and oysters off the bottom.
And so it goes in every creek until you reach the West Creek area, where the garvey seems to undergo a startling transformation. For West Creek is the home of the annual Barnegat Bay garvey races. Here, almost magical boats, sixteen to twenty feet long, with large, heavily modified automobile engines and refinements such as steps, bevelled chines and "double breasts" or semi-vee bows, rule the roost. Some were capable, in the heyday of such racing in the late 1960's, of almost one hundred miles per hour.
Some, a very few, of these fast boats were actually used for fishing. One large garvey was justifiably famous for its exploits, illegally gill-netting striped bass near Beach Haven and Barnegat Inlets on the incoming tides at night. The state Fish and Game Police tried to catch her for almost two years, but the "tunnel sterned, double breasted step garvey", thirty feet long, with two v-eight Ford engines, could make almost sixty miles per hour over the shallow flats in the bay, running in as little as a one foot and a half of water. No state patrol boat could go as fast or run in such shallow water, so her pursuers often had to detour for miles in order not to damage their boats while she happily skipped across water that was nearly mud flats.
In 1959, she was finally cornered by a half dozen Fish & Game boats in the bay while almost a dozen state troopers covered all the possible landing spots and docks in the local creeks. Eventually, surrounded and with nowhere left to run, she came into her dock. The state confiscated the boat and used her for some years in the bay, patrolling against the very miscreants that had created her and others like her.
But neither a racing boat nor a boat that large held any interest for the boatman who, all day long, wended his way down the bay, stopping here, chatting with a bayman there. His quarry was always elusive, ever just out of reach. Eventually he stopped at the New Gretna House to have a late lunch. Once a stopping place for the stage coaches to Cape May, Tuckerton, Batsto and Hammonton, the old inn and restaurant had been serving tired travelers for more than a century. He was discouraged, having travelled over fifty miles and spoken to almost a dozen men, only to be disappointed at each stop. He was about to turn back.
While eating his thick red clam chowder, properly made in the manner of that area of the Bay, with a bit of salt pork and thyme added, he asked the barman where he might find a local boat builder. He told him what he was looking for, a "double breasted garvey" of sixteen to twenty feet in length and about a six foot beam, with "rocker chines" and a "well" for the outboard. But he didn't want a work boat; he wanted a fine quality finish, for pleasure use.
"I've visited every builder from Mantoloking to West Creek, and none of them has quite what I'm looking for." he said. The barman said to him "Have you been down to Port Republic yet?" He had not. "You really ought to go down there, right by the small bridge. The place is called 'The Modern Boat works'. Ask for Mr. Adams. I think he may have what you're looking for. If he hasn't, he certainly ought to be able to make it for you. Builds a hell of a boat, and he's been doing so for a good fifty years."
So. instead of turning north he continued southbound over Great Bay on the Parkway bridge, getting back onto Route 9 on the south shore, then passing the Chestnut Neck Battle Memorial before crossing a small bridge in the middle of the sedges, near a few poor summer homes built over the sedge on stilts on the sides of the small creek. There, on his right, was the Modern Boat Works.
He pulled off the road onto the clam-shell and gravel paved lot.
He looked inside the shed and there he saw an erecting cradle for a lapstrake hull of about twenty-seven feet, a hull which would have very good lines. Behind it he saw a pale green bow sticking out into view. It was a garvey, and a double breasted one!
He walked around the cradle to look at the boat. Never in his life had he seen such a garvey! Beautifully balanced in lines, it was about twenty feet long. It had beveled chines aft, and it had a beam of about six and a half feet. Meant for outboard power, it had a solid transom with an internal well for the motor. Its lines were the best that he had ever seen.
But that mere description of a pretty hull paled as he looked more closely at it. It had mahogany thwarts, foredeck, coamings, console and windshield and teak rub rails and even teak decking slats in the cockpit. All of the hardware was of traditional brass. All fastening holes had been carefully finished with flush wooden plugs and the joinery and varnish finish were worthy of a major yacht, while the hardware was strictly traditional.
He looked at one of the cleats. It bore the hallmark of Wilcox and Crittenden, a Norfolk, Virginia foundry which had equipped the Virginia when she was the pride of the Confederacy, the Merrimack before she was cut down and renamed the Virginia and indeed, many Union ships built in Norfolk before there was a Confederate Navy.
The Danforth Constellation compass was worthy of a fifty foot cruiser. The deep gloss of the mirror-smooth mahogany finish reminded him of the woodwork that he had only ever seen elsewhere on the expensive Rolls-Royce powered Italian Riva speedboats which were sold to rich yachtsmen by an exclusive boat shop in Point Pleasant. This boat was the work of an uncompromising master craftsman.
It was chilly inside the open shed in the wind and the shade. He would have to leave soon or freeze. He walked over to the door marked "Office," but it was locked, so he went to his car to get a piece of paper to leave a note. As he opened the car's door an ancient Ford pick-up truck arrived. A very old man got out and asked, "Can I help you?" The old man was Carl Adams, the owner of the boat shop for almost sixty years.
The young boatman explained what he had been doing that day. He spoke carefully, speaking in the idiom of the baymen, having grown up among many of their children. He expressed his admiration for the beautiful garvey. He said that he had long looked for exactly such a boat, but that he had never seen one so handsome, so perfect before.
The old man warmed to him and said, "No, I won't sell you my boat. I built her for myself and I still use her. And I can't build one for you because I'm too old to do it myself, and my son, who's sixty-one, has hurt his back and can't do any heavy work. All we're building right now are couple of small duck boats and bateaus."
The boatman was very disappointed. He had dreamed, and searched and saved for years to buy just such a boat. And there it was, right in front of him, but it could not be his. He asked if he could purchase a set of the plans and attempt to build one or have it built elsewhere.
The old man said "There are no plans as such. You see, I carved a halfmodel of her and took the lines off it when I got it right. I just marked it out on the shop floor and cut her to fit. I finished the decking and trim pretty much by cutting and fitting until I was satisfied. I can show you the half- model if you'd like to see it."
With that he took out his keys and opened the office door, inviting the boatman into the well-lit office. Facing south, and with large windows, it was much warmer there than in the crisp November air of the open boat shed. He began talking about boats he had built, pointing to half-models on planks which covered much of the wall space in the room, with others stacked in a neat pile on a large table.
He described how the frames were measured off the half model, and then "lofted," or drawn full size onto sheets of brown, or "fish" paper. From these the erecting cradle and the frames would be cut.
The boatman admired some of the half models, three or four in particular. He asked about them, and Adams beamed. He said "You have a good eye! You picked out the hulls of the best of the rum runners that I ever built!"
He took one down from the wall and passed it lovingly to the boatman. The model, carved and finished like glass, had thin pencil lines scribed upon it. It was a fairly slim boat with a fine bow with some flare, a slightly raised foredeck, and hard chines, it must have been very fast.
He remarked that the lines were that of a good speedboat, but the hull would be larger than most speedboats. Adams said "That is the fastest boat that I ever built. It was 1932, and the buyer came from New York and ordered the boat like usual, paying a half down as a deposit and telling me what engines would be used and when they would be delivered."
Adams grabbed a few old brown photographs in way of explanation, handing them to the boatman. "The engines were usually either surplus Packard Liberties or Curtis OX-5's, both meant for airplanes. They always had their own people set up the engines. They told me how big a boat they wanted and what range and speed and I had freedom to do the rest, within their needs."
He continued "This was right after one of the Long Island boats got tired of being shot at by the Coast Guard four stacker destroyers and decided to do something about it. Somewhere they found a light pack howitzer and some ammunition, and when the next four stacker fired across their bows, they fired back! Probably scared those sailors out of their britches! Anyway, the four stacker made short work of them and from then on, we had to build boats which could exceed forty knots with a full load so they could outrun the destroyers."
"When I built this boat, they told me that the engines would not be the usual surplus Packard Liberties, but a brand new pair of twelve cylinder Curtiss Conqueror aero engines. Well, the Curtiss had a lot more power, but it weighed no more and was much easier on fuel, so I could build a much better boat, with more capacity and performance in the same forty-one foot hull length. That boat, once we had the right propellers on her, made seventy-one miles per hour on the measured one mile range in Little Egg Harbor."
The boatman looked in near-disbelief. In those days, that was a speed that was only being reached by the unlimited racing boats that competed in national races like the Gold Cup and Harmsworth Trophy.
But the old man continued, "It was a whole different world then. You fellas think that going fast in a boat offshore means doing thirty knots in a smooth sea. Well, forty or fifty years ago, these boats used to leave Barnegat Inlet or Beach Haven at dusk, in foul weather, to run twenty to forty miles offshore. They'd take on their load from the ship and then they'd run around Cape May to Bivalve or even Bayside, drop their cargo, and be back at the dock after dawn. That's two hundred fifty to three hundred miles, at sea, at night, usually in filthy weather, in twelve hours or so."
The boatman looked at the old man, at the beautiful garvey and the utilitarian bateau behind it, also finished with the same loving hand. He looked at the photographs of boats long gone, of huge engines, at the half models.
He should have been disappointed at the inability to have a boat like this built but strangely, he did not feel so. He realized that he had just heard the telling of the history of a way of life, of a technology now almost lost, and of people whose skill and pride and craftsmanship were such that they could not possibly be understood let alone appreciated in the modern, throw-away world.
He did not get his boat. Instead, he had a curtain to a forgotten world opened by the old man, perhaps for the last time, for an outsider to see it.
He would never own such a garvey. But he had seen and touched absolute perfection, perfection just out of reach. He realized that he could obtain such perfection in a boat only if he himself could attain such human perfection as to be its builder. Sadly, he knew that he would never achieve that level of skill or craftsmanship, of sublime perfection, at least not in this lifetime.
He thanked the old man for telling him the story of his boats and he got into the car to leave.
He returned to that boathouse several times over the next year, hoping to see Carl Adams again. But he never saw the old man, or indeed, anyone else there, ever again. In the many years that followed, he never forgot either the old man, his beautiful work, or his stories. He had truly received a gift on that cold November afternoon, a gift which altered many of his perceptions and his personal values for the rest of his life.
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