Alabama Folkways Articles

 November, 1995

BUILDING BOATS ON THE BAYOU

by Anne Kimzey

Boat building is an ancient profession, but building wooden boats by hand is a practice that is becoming increasingly rare. It was once a skill deemed essential for almost any man involved in the commercial fishing trade along Alabama's gulf coast. But as boats with metal or fiberglass hulls meet the needs of many fishermen these days, the traditional way of boat building is not being passed on as it once was.

Floyd Bosarge of Coden in south Mobile County first gained his knowledge of the craft as a boy by "watching the old people on the edge of the bayou" build the boats they used for commercial fishing. As a young man, he learned from a local boat builder, the late Johnny Wescovich, and later practiced his skills by doing repair work at a boatyard owned by his cousin,the late Garland Bosarge. A commercial fisherman himself, Floyd Bosarge knew the features of a good boat. Working in a shed behind his house, he built his own boats and then began building them "to order" for others in his community.

Now his boats populate the waters of Mobile Bay and Alabama and Mississippi's gulf coast. Locals can identify his sturdy and serviceable boats at a glance. Bosarge doesn't draw plans for his boats. Even though specific dimensions and design features (the width, shape of the hull, placement of the cabin, etc.) vary according to each customer's needs, Bosarge keeps it all in his head.

He begins with the bow stem, he said, which is fashioned from treated pine. This is the vertical piece at the front of the boat that cuts through the water. The rest of the boat is made from plywood, which, Bosarge said, has gotten more and more expensive over the years and of poorer and poorer quality. He cuts the sides next, builds the transom (the piece across the stern, or back of the boat) according to the type of outboard motor to be used, and makes the bulkhead (the vertical partitioning inside that "keeps the shape and strength of the boat.")

The boat starts off upside down, as Bosarge attaches the side pieces to the bow stem and he and his assistant Timmy Sprinkle slowly bend them, by pulling on ropes, around three flare boards, which maintain the proper width of the vessel. This process can take up to an hour or more. Once the sides are in place they are nailed to the transom. The hull or bottom goes on next, then the keel. A typical Bosarge open boat is 18 feet long and five feet wide with a flat bottom, but he also makes the "v" shaped hulls upon request.

The flare boards stay in until the bottom goes on, then he flips the boat right side up, puts the bulkhead in and removes the flare boards. Next he nails on the decking and then the smaller pieces, such as the side molding, also called the "rub rail," and the toe rail along the edge of the deck, which helps keep one from slipping overboard.

Many of the features of a boat are dictated by its use. Bosarge said 50 percent of his customers are commercial fishermen and the other half use the boats for recreation. Commercial fishermen, for example, tend to need larger boats outfitted with a cabin, so they can get out of the weather, and a culling hatch on the front of the boat for culling oysters. Oysters can then be tonged from the beds onto the hatch where the fisherman sorts through the clusters, knocking off the dead shells and small oysters and returning them to the water to preserve the oyster beds, while placing the harvested oysters in burlap sacks.

While building a boat, Bosarge caulks the seams with a marine adhesive sealant to make the vessel watertight and applies a wood preservative "wherever two pieces of wood lap together." Bosarge uses a string to mark the water line, but he usually leaves the painting to the customer. He may paint about one boat per year, he said, but he doesn't like to because he can't do any carpentry work while the paint is drying, due to the sawdust. Boats need to be painted a light color to reflect the sunlight and minimize heat absorption, which damages the wood. If painted with a light-colored, marine-grade paint, his boats should last a good ten years, he estimates.

Floyd Bosarge has kept up a steady business for at least the last 20 years, but orders have slowed down in recent years due to the economy, he said. People still want boats but often don't have enough money to pay him. "People build their own, when they find out how much it'll cost," he said.