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The Finish Line: Built in a hurry, boats find new uses after hours of extra work

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

In a city that prides itself on a long maritime tradition, the life of a Carolina bateau passes in the blink of an eye. It takes no more than four hours to go from three sheets of plywood to a trim 12-foot rowboat. Then it’s off to the Sampit River for a race. Trophies go to the builders, but what of the boats?

Sean Hoelscher has one hanging in his garage in Myrtle Beach. Mary Dudman has three stacked in a shed behind her home near the Black River. Fred Dukes has one at his home in Blythewood that he plans to convert into a sailboat.

The Wooden Boat Challenge is a highlight of the Georgetown Wooden Boat Show, which returns to the city’s waterfront this weekend. It requires two-member teams race the clock to build the best quality boat in the shortest amount of time before racing other teams in the harbor.

The boat for this year’s competition is the Carolina bateau, designed by Carruthers “B” Coleman of Lexington, Ky. It’s a variation on the Georgetown bateau he designed in 2000. Altogether, Coleman’s boats have featured in nine of the 18 events. He has given rights to the plan to the Harbor Historical Association, which sponsors the Wooden Boat Show, and to a group in Beaufort, N.C., that also sponsors a competition.

Without the competition’s four-hour time limit, the boats “would be like a piece of fine furniture,” Coleman said. “All of the competition boats are rough.”

He estimates about 150 of the boats have been built at the competitions and by people who buy plans at the boat show. The plans have never been on the market.

Fred Hoelscher of Georgetown figures he and his son, Sean, have built about 25 of the boats. That includes a couple of competition boats by the late Phil Bolger, a designer who lived in Gloucester, Mass. All teams build practice boats, usually from less expensive material, and Hoelscher turned a couple of those into drink coolers for family weddings.

Sean is building again this year. He and his partner, Gary Gates, were third last year. But Fred will still be in the competition with a Carolina bateau that he converted into a sailboat. It will be displayed at the boat show, where awards are given for the best looking entries.

“There’s probably $500 worth of material in the boat,” Fred said. That includes mahogany plywood, bronze nails and fast-setting boat caulk. To finish one takes another couple of hundred dollars.

The first boat he and Sean made was “pretty much of a disaster,” Fred recalled. That was in the 2001 competition. But he brought it home, finished it off and used it as a dinghy for a 30-foot sailboat he kept in the Georgetown harbor.

They gave one boat away to a friend who keeps it on a farm pond. Two others were given to nonprofits to auction.

“Some find homes, some don’t,” Sean said. “It’s not a bad boat when you’re done.”

The boat he and Gates made last year was finished and donated as an auction item to a charity in North Myrtle Beach, where Sean works as a city planner.

“The problem is: What to do with the boat when you’re done?” Sean said. “I’ve seen folks use them as planters.”

Willie Murphy, an architect in Charleston, and his son, James, have never won the Wooden Boat Challenge. But for five years straight they finished in the top three. “James and I focused not so much on the time, but the quality. We would typically win that part of the competition,” Murphy said.

In 10 years, “we ended up with a lot of boats,” he said. They gave some to family members to finish and donated one to a charity auction. James is converting one for use in duck hunting.

“There a lot of work to it, to sand it and make it something you’re really proud of,” Murphy said.

Sealing the joints is critical, Murphy and Fred Hoelscher said. “You have to do something or they’ll soak up water and fall apart,” Murphy said.

He estimated another 40 to 60 hours goes into finishing a boat that’s built in four hours or less in the competition. “A couple in Beaufort knocked it out in 1:40-something,” Coleman said. “They were quite unusual.”

Craig Dukes kept two of the boats he and Rolf de Swardt built as practice for the competition. De Swardt kept another and the competition boat. Dukes painted the boats, but they still got waterlogged. He was able to use them in a Fourth of July race on a lake near his home before cutting them up.

Last month, he got the competition boat back. He’s going to turn it into a sailboat, just like he did with one of the practice boats.

“I woke up this morning with a flash of insight on how to shave even more weight and improve its seaworthiness,” he said in an e-mail last week.

Mary Dudman always intended to finish off one of her boats and use it as a dinghy for the 27-foot sail boat she and her husband keep at Wacca Wache Marina. She has plenty to choose from, boats built at the competition or for practice by her and Fred Hahn, her brother-in-law.

Like other builders, they donated a finished boat to the Wooden Boat Show to raffle. The event benefits the S.C. Maritime Museum on Front Street. Hahn donated one to the Boy Scouts in Bloomington, Ill., where he lives.

After competing in Georgetown, Dudman and Hahn were invited to a 2010 competition at Michigan State University. They built one of Bolger’s boats, a Monhegan skiff. It was raffled to benefit a memorial for a local boatbuilder and outdoorsman.

“We built our first practice boat under a beach house in Pawleys Island during a family vacation,” said Dudman, who had watched the competition for years. “After that, we were hooked. Monhegans and Carolina skiffs everywhere.”

If you go: Georgetown Wooden Boat Show

When: Oct. 19, 10 a.m-6 p.m.; building competition, noon-4 p.m.; rowing races, 5 p.m.

Where: Front Street and Harborwalk, Georgetown

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