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Boat Building in the Boondocks – Part Two

Editor’s note:  Part One of Peter’s story about the Coral Bay, U.S. Virgin Islands Cowhorns appeared in the February issue of All at Sea.  To read it and other stories by Peter Muilenburg, visit www.allatsea.net

Two hundred years ago, Coral Bay was a busy port that could shelter a couple hundred boats…but by 1975 it had long been a backwater, snoozing in the sun.   Then an explosion of boatbuilding energy put Coral Bay on the map.  Suddenly six Cowhorn schooners sprung up behind Fred’s Bar; two bigger boats, 45 footers, were also under construction just a five minute drive to the east…eight boats going at it hammer and tongs.   Fred’s Bar became project HQ … Formerly a concrete bunker, dim and dank, the influx of new people made it brighter.  The clack of billiards was a constant backdrop as was the clink of glasses and passionate conversation.

The cause of this remarkable industry was Augie Hollen, even though for a time he tried to deny it.  He was minding his own business, trying to build himself a boat, when all of a sudden he had a following.  When the dust cleared, he had agreed to build a reusable mold for would-be boat builders.

The boats were built one by one.  Since they needed to lay up a layer a day, one man couldn’t do it fast enough; it needed a group. Thus they worked for each other.  When the outer hull was sufficiently cured, it had to be separated from the mold.  The first one was the hardest, requiring the services of a backhoe; but each successive hull parted more easily as the guys learned tricks and techniques.  When it was separated, to the accompaniment of great cheering and copious drinking, the hull was set upright and chocked in place.  They sat at the water’s edge like so many ducklings ready to take to the sea.  It seemed at the time that they were almost done.   There they would stay for two long, hard years.

The names of the builders: Alan Johnson, Larry and Patty Flewelling, Julian Putley,  Danny Linkey,  Paul Hellings. Larry and Patty whipped together a tiny houseboat called Big Bertha;  Danny lived with his wife and child in a tent on an East End beach;  Alan Johnson lived on 20 ft Driftwood with his little dog Pippin. The Cowhorn builders were a joyous example of how the sum of the parts can exceed the whole.  All of the guys and their ladies really bonded over their years of toil in Fred’s boatyard. 

When rainy season came, the land all about the boats turned  to thick ooze  that seized at one’s sandals.  The guys resorted to laying down pieces of lumber to cross the  sea of mud.  Worse yet  were the whining clouds of mosquitoes.  The tiniest patch of exposed skin was a dinner bell to the vicious vermin which would congregate in such numbers as to blacken the skin.  In dry weather, the mud turned into baked flats, giving off clouds of dust when a car went by.

Nature could be cruel but the boat builders sucked it up and made more misery for themselves—grinding up a cloud of the itchy white fiberglass dust.  There’s nothing like shared  hardships to  build camaraderie. When it was all over they found they had built their friendships as strong as the hulls of their boats.

All the activity attracted curious onlookers, especially West Indian men, most of whom had a boat builder or two in their ancestry.  The Cowhorns reminded them of their own sailing heritage when, not so long ago, anyone who came to or left the island had to do it under sail—and when fishing, cargo-hauling and boatbuilding were important occupations.

Of course, the biggest celebrations accompanied the launch of each vessel.  Hundreds of people would show up to help or just watch the show.  Here must be mentioned Georgie Krigger, the government bulldozer driver in Coral Bay, who donated his time and the government  dozer to maneuver the boats into position and then slide them into the deep water. 

Georgie was a master at his work; and was present at each of the launchings.  It was a sight to see, the freshly-launched boat, loaded way down on her marks with people as they took  a ride around the harbor.     There’d be gouts of champagne spouting, drenching the clothes of the skipper, conch horns blowing, women hooting, men bellowing.  It was a real catharsis at the end of a wearying ordeal.

One valuable life lesson they brought from the experience:  beware free advice.  There were always people  walking around the work, who could not resist prescribing what must be done next.  You could tell easily the tire kickers who didn’t really have a clue.   Those were the people who volunteered advice without anybody asking them for it.  The less the kibitzer knew, the more eager was he (always a he, never a she) to impart it and the less he should be heeded. The ones who really knew had to be sought out and plied with rum, beer or wheatgrass tea.

When it was Augie, it would be two Heineken beers or the equivalent in rum.  As he explained to me once when we were at the Bitter End salvaging lead from a wreck nearby, "It’s simple!  I was just born two drinks under par!"  Augie was our ace in the hole.  He had a natural physical/mechanical intelligence, besides whatever it was that got him recruited for the CIA (see February All at Sea.)  He seldom got through Fred’s boatyard without being asked his opinion on some boatbuilding problem; and rare was it that he didn’t have a good answer.  He taught all of us the fine points  and short cuts to fiberglassing and he was the master of the quick, cheap, effective fix.  He could build or jury-rig just about anything.

Once, Augie took the remains of three chainsaws that had crapped out after I had used them to salvage lead lying just above the surf line.  He added a hydraulic motor and a set of hydraulic hoses and, Presto!  We had an underwater chain saw!

It was only natural that when the boats got sailing that the boat builders would race them against each other.  It followed that if they were to race, why not have a regatta to celebrate their boats?  Gathering in Paul Helling’s tiny shed with Meagan Elliott as secretary,  they hatched a plan. Looking over the schedule of long weekends,  they found only Thanksgiving still unspoken for.  They claimed it—and the Coral Bay Thanksgiving Regatta came into being.  Along with it, the Coral Bay Yacht club was organized to put on the regatta. The Cowhorns symbolized Coral Bay for a good while. In fact, every  year for the regatta the official t-shirt was  required to have a Cowhorn and the Moravian church prominently in the design.

The farthest-sailing Cowhorn belongs to the well known artist Dave Wegman, who bought the hull from Julian Putley.  Dave has single-handed the AFriggin’ Queen around the globe in an eight-year voyage.  Larry Flewelling took Running Bare down island and then to Florida where he hauled her out and stored her behind his house.  Augie and Sylvia took Violet L to the Bahamas for a year’s cruising.  The others have stuck pretty much close to home. None of them have been wrecked except for Delphinus which stands at the waters edge in Coral Bay, driven there by a Hurricane, Marilyn.

Not long ago most of the Cowhorn builders and owners got together  at Augie’s place to pay respect to the old "admiral."  Surrounded by those whose lives he has touched with his white hair and beard, he looked like a benevolent Neptune.

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