HARKERS ISLAND, N.C. — Fishing boat captain Billy Willis, 44, was precariously leaning out over the bow of his not-yet-completed 41-foot shrimp boat putting finishing touches on the paint job.
What are you going to call your boat, Willis was asked.
"Lady Melba," he replied. "My wife's name is Melba.
"She's a full lady, stem to stern, Melba, my wife. And so is Lady Melba, my new boat."
The Lady Melba is one of numerous boats currently under construction in boathouses and backyards on four-mile-long, half-mile-wide Harkers Island in Core Sound off the coast of North Carolina. The island has been famous for its boats for more than a century to fisherman and yachtsmen from Maine to Florida.
'All in Our Heads'
"Everybody on the island is involved in boat making one way or another," Willis said. "No one here uses blueprints or elaborate plans to build the boats. It's all in our heads. We're born with this talent."
During the past few months, when Willis hasn't been fishing in Core and Pamlico Sound or in the Atlantic, he has been at the boathouse helping build the Lady Melba.
"My labor comes free," he said, between licks with the paintbrush. "It cuts down on expenses having me help. Some of us Harkers Islanders are both fishermen and boat builders."
Nearly half the people on the island, population 2,000, are named Willis, descendants of an 18th-Century shipwrecked British sailor.
Eighty-year-old Lloyd Willis was waiting at a dock with Lenzy L. Ashworth, 59, owner of Capt. Budd's Machine Works, an island enterprise.
A Bell-Ringer Day
It was a bell-ringer day for bearded "Capt. Budd," as Ashworth is affectionately called by islanders. He was getting delivery on a 40-foot fishing boat built by Lloyd Willis' son, Alex, 35.
Minutes earlier Alex Willis had launched Ashworth's boat, the Barbara, named after the owner's wife, and was bringing the vessel around to the dock.
"You can spot a Harkers Island boat easy," said Lloyd Willis. "By the design, by the flare bows, by the style of craftsmanship. This boat of Capt. Budd's should still be afloat 50 to 60 years from now."
He walked over to a nearby boat. "See that boat? I helped build it 55 years ago. I have been a boat maker 66 years, ever since I was 14. Haven't quit yet. I helped my son build Capt. Budd's boat," he said, beaming with pride.
Ashworth hired Alex Willis to construct his fishing vessel along traditional lines--out of juniper and pine. He plans to use the boat for pleasure and fishing during his free time. He was asked why, on an island where many men are called captain because they are fishing boat captains, he would have the nickname Capt. Budd.
"I came to Harkers 30 years ago from Raleigh, the state capital," said Ashworth. "If you come to this island and stay more than a day or two, islanders who don't know your name call you captain as a matter of custom. My nickname is Budd. So I've always been Capt. Budd."
At the largest yard on the island, East Bay Boatworks, owned by Vance Gillikin, 55, boats built to order cost $65,000 to $325,000 and more.
Gillikin builds yachts, Mississippi River tour boats like the 77-foot paddle wheeler Delta Lady now sailing from Cape May, N.J., charter boats and large fishing vessels.
Mervin Rose, 72, one of eight boat builders at East Bay, readily admitted: "Yes, we make these expensive boats without plans. I can't explain it. But that's the way it is. We talk to the buyer. Get it all in our mind what he wants and we take it from there."
Everywhere you go on Harkers Island you see boat makers. At the half dozen boat houses. In back yard after back yard.
Weldon Willis, 40, was busy in his back yard just beginning the framing for a 22-foot skiff. His wife, Dora, sat on a chair watching.
"I'm what you call a hold. Lot of us Harkers Island women are holds," said Dora. "We sit patiently in the yard waiting for our husbands to hand us something to hold while they are building a boat. I hold tools, planks. Anything he hands me.
"My mother was a sander and painter at my father's big boat works. My dad, James Rose, and his brother Earl for years owned and operated the Rose Bros. Boat Works. They specialized in building expensive yachts for wealthy families and companies from New York to Florida."
Out of Business
The two brothers died within a couple of years of each other and the company went out of business.
Down the street, Houston Lewis, 40, and his brother, Jamie, 46, were building a 19-foot skiff they will sell for $3,000. The brothers have built 300 boats of various sizes the last 15 years.
Nearby Bertley (Duncan) Willis, 61, and his son, Bertley (Paul) Willis, 29, were working on a 33-foot fishing boat in their back yard. Father and son divide their time fishing and building boats like so many others on the island.
"Reason why our boats are so much in demand," said the older man, "is because no one can come close to the quality of work by Harkers Island boat builders, and by the style and efficiency of these boats.
"Harkers Island is synonymous with boat building. Wherever we go where people are familiar with boats, and they find out we're from Harkers Island, N.C., they always says, 'Oh, you must be a boat builder.'
"Then they always ask: 'How do you fellows make those boats without blueprints or plans?'
"We always point to our heads and say: 'It all comes from here.' "