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Wooden Boat Show: Builders race the clock, then each other

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Warren Nelson of Pawleys Island loves the annual Wooden Boat Show in Georgetown.

He and his friend Ken Stouffer of Georgetown — they are both professional builders — will try their hands in the Wooden Boat Challenge, a contest that requires a two-person team to build a 12-foot wooden rowboat called the Carolina Baxteau beginning at noon Saturday.

All competitors use the same plans and are rewarded for the quality of craftsmanship as well as speed of completion. The record is 1 hour and 50 minutes. Competitors also have to row their boats across the Sampit River and back in a relay race as the last leg of the contest. “We like building boats,” Nelson said, “and this is a nice boat.”

They expect to take most of the four hours allotted, enjoy the experience and go home with “a decent dinghy.”

“We’re not out to break any records,” Nelson said.

With an entry fee of just $100, contestants receive at least $300 in materials, Stouffer said. That alone makes it worth the effort.

“Warren and I work together all the time,” he said. “We can handle that.”

There will be 20 teams competing under the big tent at Front and Broad streets Saturday. The Wooden Boat Challenge was started in 1981 at the wooden boat show in Newport, R.I. That first event was a quick-and-dirty building contest featuring six teams building a boat of their choice and then racing them.

The first one-­design boat building contest, featuring a double-ended Teal, was held four years later at the Oyster Festival in Norwalk, Conn. The Teal design remained in use until 2001 when Willie French of Georgetown — by way of New Zealand — and his partner Randy Kinard set the building speed record of 1 hour, 11 minutes and 34 seconds.

In 2002, organizers wanted a more challenging skiff. The result was the Georgetown Bateau, which remained the challenge boat until 2007. Then the Monhegan Skiff was introduced, but it was too challenging as a number of teams were unable to finish within the four hour limit. A happy medium was reached in 2010 with the Carolina Bateau, combining challenge with beauty.

In 2007, the National BoatBuilding Challenge was organized by Wooden Boat Magazine as a circuit of regional boat building contests. So far, regional contests have been held in Belfast, Maine, Beaufort, N.C., and Georgetown. Wooden boat show organizers in Southport, N.C., are making plans to hold a contest in September 2013 with others on the horizon.

The boat building challenge is just one aspect of Saturday’s activities, sponsored by the Harbor Historical Association. There will be wooden boat exhibits — Stouffer entered a 26-foot sailboat in the show and still has the cap with the Goat Island logo from 1993 — along with children’s model boat building, knot tying, maritime arts and crafts, food and music. Events run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m and take place on the waterfront and along Front Street. Admission is free with money raised through sales of T-shirts, hats and posters going toward the operation and development of the South Carolina Maritime Museum.

Vessels will be exhibited in 12 categories: row, canoe, kayak, surfboard, sail, inboard power, outboard power, classic sail, classic inboard power, classic outboard power, owner designed and built, and century class. Visitors will be able to meet and talk to wooden boat craftsmen, manufacturers and owners. Maritime art, crafts and models will also be on display.

For additional information go to woodenboatshow.com.

Artist turns dad into poster child for boat show

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Keels Culberson Swinnie pulled the scene she used for this year’s Georgetown Wooden Boat Show poster from the memories of her childhood.

In the painting for the 23rd annual event this Saturday she is standing on tiptoes on a little stool at the stern of a wooden boat with her father, Henry, looking on. He is in blue jeans and flip-flops, just as he is today, with a ponytail curling around his neck. There are surfboards stashed overhead in the workshop, hinting that it’s too cold for riding the surf at Pawleys Island and a good day for woodworking.

On days like this, Swinnie says, she would ride along as her father rowed the Waccamaw River in a boat he built himself. She was so inspired with the craft that she and a neighbor boy built their own boat — it was more like a raft, her father says.

Swinnie says her childhood memories are better than the reality. She admits to being embarrassed that her parents weren’t like those of her friends.

Henry Culberson remains an unconventional farmer, with orange trees loaded with fruit and banana trees, too. Other crops are irrigated using solar power, and he sells honey from his beehives. He is first and foremost a builder and has constructed his own paradise at the edge of the Hagley community on the riverbank. Sitting around a smoldering fire pit on a coolish October morning, it’s easy to imagine that this is how the Swiss Family Robinson clan lived, even if it’s not on an island and the rat-a-tat-tat of building next door pierces the serenity.

Swinnie, the artist, is a product of this paradise. When her mother noticed that she couldn’t learn to skip at age 6, doctors found that her hip was out of joint, likely the result of a fall from a tree limb that she just shrugged off. Surgery and nine weeks in a full-body cast left her with little else but pencils, paints and paper to amuse herself.

The things around her made good subject matter. Her father is known for his surfboards, and he regularly took his own wooden boat to Charleston for rowing races. He had building projects continually in the works, stopping to surf whenever the spirit, or the waves, called.

At age 30, Swinnie realizes what a gift her unconventional childhood was and its influence on her as an artist.

She graduated from Converse College in 2004 with a rather conventional bachelor’s degree in interior design and art history before studying studio art at the College of Charleston and continuing at the Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence, Italy.

Her creative streak kept calling when she came home, and she started a business specializing in painted furniture and old doors and shutters. She’ll be busy until Christmas painting pet portraits, another niche that she has exploited.

Her paintings are on display at the Ebb and Flow Art Co-op in Murrells Inlet, a gallery she founded with three friends.

“I love to paint in bright colors,” she says. The influence of the family’s second home in Costa Rica and her travels to Italy and Greece can be found in her work. She just came home from a gallery tour through Paris, Amsterdam and cities in Spain. Though she loves impressionism, she tends to be more realistic.

The original painting for the Wooden Boat Show poster, with its mahogany-inlay frame, will be auctioned at the Goat Island Regatta, a sponsors party, Friday night in Georgetown. Swinnie will sign posters — they sell for $20 — at the Maritime Museum on Front Street Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The painting is also printed on the boat show’s annual T-shirts. More of her paintings are on display this week at the Rice Paddy restaurant.

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