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Wooden Boat Challenge: To reach the finish line – practice, practice, practice

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

After 17 years of organizing boat-building competitions, Susan Sanders can’t help but smile when she hears the husky whine of a circular saw. So the director of the S.C. Maritime Museum was practically giddy on Saturday when a group of contestants in next month’s 18th Wooden Boat Challenge met for a lesson in how to build a Carolina Bateau in four hours or less.

The challenge will be part of next month’s Wooden Boat Show in Georgetown. Skip White and Dave Lowe won last year and in 2010. They demonstrated their technique to a half dozen of the 30 builders who will compete in two-member teams Oct. 19.

“If you have 15 teams, you have 15 different techniques,” White said. “Each crew has a different setup.”

But he and Lowe agree that practice is essential. Even in the four-hour demonstration, “there were some things we didn’t remember,” White said.

The teams get lumber, fasteners and a set of plans. They have four hours to complete a 12-foot rowboat. The boats are judged on time spent and quality. The teams then race their boats on the Sampit River, so seaworthiness counts for more than just an inscription on the trophy.

White and Lowe are carpenters who have worked together outside the boat building contest. White wields a circular saw like a surgeon’s scalpel. At the weekend demonstration, a steady northeast breeze blew the sawdust across the museum parking lot into the growing stack of scrap plywood and boards. As the boat took shape on a work table designed by White and Lowe for the competition, clusters of tourists stopped to watch.

After two hours, a boat sat on the table.

“At this point, you’re running out of time,” White said.

The future contestants looked puzzled, but he explained that the detail work would eat into the rest of the time. The balance between speed and quality is at the heart of the competition.

“We always want to have a good-looking boat first,” White said.

Watching the lesson was another past winner, Willie French, who has also served as a judge. Although there is a judging sheet, “you can line them all up and pull out the best ones,” he said.

He agreed that practice is essential for competitors. “If you don’t build a practice boat, you’ll never do it,” French said.

The table White and Lowe used had electrical outlets built into each side. They use power saws, routers, sanders, grinders and drills to build the boat. It’s important to have spares, they said.

Also important: rags and paint thinner. The joints are nailed, but also held together with an adhesive sealant. If stray sealant isn’t wiped off, it will harden and spoil the look, Lowe said.

Charles Walker of Brunswick, Ga., builds furniture. He’s watched the competition for years and recently bought a house in Georgetown, where his wife grew up. He will team up with his nephew, Alex Salmon, who grew up at Pawleys Island, for the competition.

“I learned what not to do,” Walker said. “This is really rough carpentry.”That’s an important lesson, French said. “You’re not building a piano.”

There is still room for three more teams in the Wooden Boat Challenge, said Susan Hibbs, one of the organizers. For entry information go online to woodenboatshow.com.

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