(This is a post started last August; am just getting back to it.)
It will take nearly four hours of driving to get there, to get where the boat is, a boat built by hand in the loft of an old barn. We head out at sunrise while there’s still dew on the grass.
We don’t go east toward the coast, though, where most boats and builders of them live. Instead, we turn and go the other direction – to the southwest into the mountains. Instead of the land of crabs and oysters and skipjacks, we’re going deep into coal and bluegrass and moonshine country.
After 200 miles of driving we’ll still be in Virginia, though just barely. From south of Fries it’s just 10 miles as the crow flies to the Carolina line, and 20 to Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia. This is where Marvin Spencer, proprietor and master craftsman of Brush Creek Yachts, lives and builds boats.
I met Marvin back in 2007. Amanda and I spent a week on Ocracoke Island, with a side trip cruising into the Dismal Swamp in a little plywood skiff, my first boat build. The story of that trip is actually the very first post of this blog.
From The Great Dismal we made our way to the Outer Banks, catching the last ferry over from Hatteras to Ocracoke. I had been thinking hard about building a real boat. The sharpie skiff was a practice project to prep for something more challenging. I had just about settled on the Melonseed. The following week I would be in Boston on business, and would pay a visit to Roger Crawford at his shop near Plymouth, Massachusetts, to see his well known fiberglass boats.
But I also knew of a relatively obscure builder – also in Plymouth, but North Carolina, oddly enough – who had recently built a Melonseed in wood. Plymouth, NC, was just a little out of the way on the drive back from Ocracoke.
Marvin graciously stayed late to speak with me and show off his boat. The workmanship was amazing, much of the boat made with local swamp cypress. He clearly loved his craft, and had an artist’s eye for proportion and balance. It convinced me to build the boats I have now.
Fast forward a decade. Doug, who ten years ago let me take photos and measurements from his Crawford Melonseed for my own build, now needs a bigger boat. The Marsh Cat seems about perfect, and certainly has a lot of fans among the crowd I sail with. But few Marsh Cats come up for sale, so he needed a builder, and I remembered Marvin.
In the intervening years, Marvin moved away from the water and back to Virginia, but is still working on boats. He’s now built or restored around 80 boats of all types. He took a keen interest in the Marsh Cat design and agreed give it a try for a very reasonable price. That was a mere 8 months ago, and the boat has been finished for nearly two, just waiting on some hardware and a trailer.
When we arrive on Saturday, Marvin has already moved the Marsh Cat from of the loft. He had to build a special crane and chain hoist arrangement to get it out. Says the Marsh Cat is the biggest boat he’s moved like that, and the biggest he can fit in the loft. Marvin has two other boats in the yard, One is a powered sharpie for inland cruising with a small, efficient motor; the other another catboat.
We got a look at the new boat and went over how to rig it up. Lifting the mast is a challenge, best done with two people. A tabernacle is planned, but the foundry casting it burned down, so that will have to come later. The workmanship is amazing. The boat is beautiful. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:
We hoped to go for a maiden sail, but with storms forecast for the afternoon we postpone until the next day. Doug helps Marvin push the boat back into the barn, and I try to imagine what a job it is for Marvin to move these boats around by himself.
We tour the house Marvin built himself, complete with nesting tables and cabinets, and meet his wife who is a painter and artist. Then we all head for dinner in the little town of Fries, on the New River.
The New River is clearly misnamed, as much a paradox as a boat builder living in the mountains. Not new at all, it’s actually one of the oldest rivers in the world. Unlike all other rivers on the Eastern Seaboard flowing southeast from the mountains to the Atlantic, the New River flows the opposite direction – northwest up into the mountains, and through them to the Ohio Valley and the Mississippi beyond, and from there down to the Gulf of Mexico. This means the river was here before the Appalachian Mountains, one of the oldest ranges in the world. The river cut through the mountains as they were pushed up 500 million years ago. New River indeed.
Tomorrow we’ll take the boat downstream to Claytor Lake, formed by a damn on this New River. Tonight we’ll stay in a little cottage back up a hollow near Buffalo Mountain.
The lake is nice, certainly the scenery is great. Winds a little flukey with all the mountains around. We fire up the electric trolling motor and cruise out of the state park marina, get things sorted out and look for clear air. This makes time for Doug to pull out a special bottle of whiskey saved for the occasion and do the christening. Pontoon boats appear to be more the norm on this lake, but a big sloop sails by and gives us an approving shout. Once everything feels settled and round a bend into some wind, we raise the big sail and the boat starts to fly. Big smiles all around. No photos of actual sailing – I was too nervous about sailing a new boat to pick up the camera.
She’s stable and responsive, even when the wind picks up. Besides the tabernacle, we make a mental list of things to tweak or modify. Doug wants to add an outboard, and there are some lines to replace or move to be more convenient, blocks to add – things you do to personalize a boat and finish it off. But the boat itself is an amazing piece of work. Marvin even sewed the sail himself. Incredible.
Here’s some very rough video from that first trip:
We haul the boat and rig her for the drive home. We’re looking forward to more sea trials when he weather warms up.