A Showcase of Watercraft

Written By: 
Dean Blumberg
The Georgetown Wooden Boat Show helps keep a craft heritage alive

“Wooden boats and the sea—they’re made for each other,” says Jon Ramaci. “It’s a natural pairing.” Colleen, his 1929 wooden motor yacht, rests uncovered in its Isle of Palms slip, it’s aged mahogany reflecting light from an annual coating of varnish.

Ramaci and other wooden boat enthusiasts are getting ready for the Georgetown Wooden Boat Show on October 21st and 22nd, a free weekend event along historic Front and Broad streets dedicated to wooden watercraft and celebrating the maritime history of Georgetown and South Carolina. Over the weekend wooden boat owners and builders will showcase boats of all types and from all eras, as well as wooden canoes, kayaks, surfboards and paddleboards.

Since humankind first put out to sea, wood has been the material of choice. Early boat builders used the wood available to them, but, over generations of trial and error, they soon learned that certain woods were better than others in marine environments. Green white oaks bend easily. An oily teak repels water well. Cedar provides resistance to rot. Wooden boat building became more than carpentry—it evolved into an art form blending physics, industrial design and aesthetics.

Yet despite generations of history and artistry, wooden boat culture met its match in the 1950s when mass-produced fiberglass boats made boating more accessible and affordable for many. To this day, the majority of boats filling South Carolina marinas are fiberglass. Compared to natural materials, their strength and ease of care is hard to beat. Wood is subjected to elements that hasten its decay, and maintenance and repair is both costly and time-consuming. As a result, the art and culture of wooden boats is at risk of being forgotten.

In response to this, Bayfest (later renamed Georgetown Wooden Boat Show) was created in 1983. A year later, the Harbor Historical Association (HHA) was formed to promote the Wooden Boat Show and to preserve the maritime history of Georgetown and South Carolina. Sally Swineford of Georgetown’s River Room Restaurant, a patron of the Boat Show and member of the HHA board, recalls the early days of the show.

“Once we formed the Harbor Historical Association to run the Wooden Boat Show, our long-term goal was to create a South Carolina Maritime Museum to share the rich maritime history of this region.” Through the rising popularity of the Wooden Boat Show, now a designated “Top 20” winner by the Southeast Tourism Society, Swineford and others were able to secure a space for the museum. The Wooden Boat Show continues to be the primary source of fundraising for the South Carolina Maritime Museum.

Opened in 2011, the South Carolina Maritime Museum houses an impressive collection of old photographs, documents, artifacts and interactive exhibits. The centerpiece of the museum is the Fresnel lens of the old North Island lighthouse. Strolling along Front Street, it’s easy to forget that Georgetown’s port once rivaled Charleston’s as one of the biggest and busiest on the East Coast. Some of the wooden boats celebrated today were those carrying rice, and later cotton, in the 18th and 19th centuries. The nearby Rice Museum and Gullah Museum showcase other aspects of the culture, offering visitors an intersecting look at a part of Georgetown history.

While the museum and Wooden Boat Show both highlight history, wooden boat culture has seen a resurgence lately. According to Swineford, “the introduction of marine-resistant wood materials and urethanes makes it much easier to preserve and care for wood.” But it’s more than better materials that creates the draw for boaters to choose wood. Jon Ramaci thinks it’s our culture’s desire to make things more beautiful. Ramaci, a technology designer in the medical field who grew up around small wooden boats on Cape Cod, points to Apple products. “When we become inundated with mass-produced objects that only serve a function, we find this deeper need for objects that also exist as beautiful artifacts in and of themselves.” In essence, wooden boats are more than boats. They are beautiful artifacts that also happen to be capable of floating and sailing.

For Ramaci, the Wooden Boat Show has become a must-do on his calendar. “It’s an absolutely wonderful experience, and I’ve met many people through it.” Ramaci, his wife, Haverly, and their two children enjoy inviting people aboard Colleen during the show. “I’ve been able to research the history of the boat and its architect. Haverly designed the interior inspired by the period. We feel like caretakers of a piece of history, and one that we want to share with the public.”

Over the third weekend in October, Georgetown’s historic Harborwalk will be filled with visitors, a lively family-friendly event with exhibits, contests, activities, music and food. One of the biggest draws of the weekend is Saturday’s Wooden Boat Challenge, where teams of two compete to build a rowing skiff in under four hours and then row it in a relay across the Sampit River. As the show has grown, so have the more family-friendly activities. Featured this year are kids’ activities including model boat building, face painting, kite building and more.

The carefree family environment is what attracts Glenn and Mackall Horres and their children to the show year after year. “We’ve met friends that are like family now,” Mackall Horres recalls. “We went to our first show in 2011 and ended up buying a custom wooden houseboat.” The boat, built by Brett Seyle of Awendaw and named Ship Shop, is 8’ x 20’ and painted a Tiffany blue.

The Horres family takes the houseboat camping at nearby Kiawah and have returned to the Wooden Boat Show with Ship Shop almost every year since. “On the weekend of the boat show in 2015 we welcomed our son Ernie,” Mackall remarks. “This year we plan to celebrate his second birthday at the show in Georgetown with a small family party aboard Ship Shop.”

From all appearances, the Wooden Boat Show succeeds in offering a fun experience because of a dedicated community that is passionate about it. There is Mark Bayne, a professional wooden boat builder who teaches a class on the trade at Cape Fear Community College and has helped judge the show for years. “Mark lives for the Wooden Boat Show,” says his wife, Sherri. There’s also Dan “the Knot Man,” a former president of the International Guild of Knot Tyers and a staple at the show. Like many small-town festivals that draw crowds from outside regions, it’s a show that highlights a community and history, and one that shouldn’t be missed.

For more information about the Wooden Boat Show, including a full schedule of events, please visit wooden boatshow.com. Information about the South Carolina Maritime Museum can be found at www.scmaritimemuseum.org.