In the Same Boat
The refloating of the Deepwater stirs a family’s memories and honors an Outer Banks legend.
By Catherine Kozak
Photographs by Melody Leckie
The freshly restored Deepwater, a newcomer at the Manteo waterfront docks, was built on the Outer Banks during the midcentury lull, a time bookended by explosions of war and tourism. The wooden vessel was the first and last big boat that John Wilson Jr. ever made. Time has shown he did it right.
The boat was crafted by a man who knew the pleasure of a cruise and wanted to share that with his family. But the glory years for the 39-foot vessel happened later, when it was helmed by legendary charter captain Lee Perry, a vivid personality from the dawn of Oregon Inlet sport fishing.
Saved from the scrap heap by Wilson’s grandson, John Wilson IV, and his partner, Billy Parker, the Deepwater sat in storage for 22 years, until the men decided two years ago to pull the restoration trigger.
“It’s just remarkable that a 63-year-old boat is as good as new,” Wilson says during a spin in Roanoke Sound. “Better than new. It will be around for another 63 years. And it will help us remember Lee Perry.”
The Picnic Days
When Roanoke Island resident John Wilson Jr. built the Deepwater in 1953, with the help of renowned Outer Banks boat builders Warren O’Neal and Roy Etheridge, he wanted it as a “picnic boat” for easygoing family outings in Roanoke Sound with his wife, Alma, and their three children and their spouses and children. Everyone would share cold fried chicken, pimiento cheese sandwiches on white bread, potato salad and deviled eggs, and wash it down with sweet iced tea. For dessert, there was always homemade chocolate layer cake.
John Wilson Jr.’s son, Jack Wilson, is 90 years old now, but he clearly remembers seeing the juniper for the Deepwater after it was hauled to his father’s horse pasture from the Great Dismal Swamp. Sitting in a vintage wheelchair beside his wife, Estelle, at the Roanoke Island Inn, Jack says he remembers that his father had selected juniper for the boat’s keel from the Dismal Swamp, where M.R. White owned a sawmill. More juniper boards were also cut for planking the hull. Jack, who was 27 when the boat was built, remembers that the wood was put under some oak trees in his father’s yard and arranged like a tent for about six weeks to allow the wood to dry.
But long before construction had begun, Jack recalls, his father had whittled a model of the hull he wanted for his boat.
The Deepwater — the origin of the name is a mystery — looked entirely different from other boats built on the Outer Banks, Jack says. It had a hard chine (the angle in the cross section of the hull), likely inspired by the Northern boats his father saw while working during the 1930s in New York as a captain of a Sutton Lines steamer. The bow stem was inspired by a Harkers Island workboat. The Wilsons kept the boat docked at Brinkley’s Boathouse on the Manteo waterfront, now the site of Marshes Light Marina.
Jack and Estelle Wilson speak happily of memories of the Saturday cruises, sharing the picnic lunch with relations from every generation, baby to elder.
The Fishing Years
When the Deepwater outgrew its family mission and John Wilson Jr. wanted a smaller, faster boat, he sold it in 1959 for $6,000 to his daughter-in-law’s father, Delton Dowdy from Kitty Hawk. Dowdy, who had recently retired from the Coast Guard, added a flybridge and used the boat for charter fishing trips out of Oregon Inlet when the charter business was in its infancy.
Dowdy’s mate, his nephew and native Kitty Hawker Lee Perry, purchased the Deepwater in 1966. For 25 more years, Perry – who became legendary as a charter captain – ran the boat in all kinds of weather, fished in all kinds of conditions, and entertained all kinds of people with outrageous fish tales and hot-tempered rants that cooled as quickly as they erupted.
“There’s not a person who knew Lee who doesn’t have a story about him,” Wilson says affectionately.
The Deepwater’s Lee Perry years were as rollicking as its family picnic days were serene.
First as mate, then as captain, Perry was on the boat from 1959 until 1991, always fishing even when other captains wouldn’t go because of adverse conditions. The boat’s four-cylinder engine was fine for family cruising, but for fishing it needed new power. Perry had a competitive streak, and he worked the boat hard.
“Whenever anybody would pass Lee Perry, was when he would have to have a new engine,” Wilson says with a bemused smile.
Talk was, Wilson says, that Lee Perry was bound to die in a boat accident because wooden boats shouldn’t go so fast.
Perry cussed at and often fired and rehired his crew — sometimes on the same day, Wilson says. If he lost fish, it was the mate’s fault. If he caught fish, it was because the captain had the right bait. But despite his actions, he was the first charter captain people requested.
Another reason Lee Perry was so memorable — besides his flash temper — was for his speech impediment resulting from a cleft palate he’d had repaired as a child.
Kitty Hawk fisherman Charles Perry, 69, grew up with Lee, his much-older first cousin.
Lee Perry, Charles says, fished with unconstrained passion.
“Fishing excited him as much as anyone could get excited,” Charles recalls. “The last blue marlin he saw was just as exciting as the first blue marlin he saw, I promise you.”
Despite his speech difficulty, Lee Perry talked a lot, but understanding him could be a formidable challenge. Charles says he heard about people spending hours with him on charter trips and confessing later that they didn’t understand one word he had said the entire day.
Sometimes he would get so charged up that he forgot he was holding the mic button down on the radio. “He’d talk nonstop for three or four minutes,” Charles recalls. “All of us would be laughing. He was hilarious. . . . We’d sit up on the bridge and listen and laugh and laugh.”
After Perry’s death, the boat was deemed unusable for modern commercial fishing. In 1991 a local boat builder bought it for the engine, and the hull was set aside.
Return to the Water
When Wilson, the builder’s grandson, learned that the engineless Deepwater was for sale, he paid $5,000 for it and shelled out $6,000 more for a storage barn in the same pasture where the boat was originally constructed.
“Billy and I bought the boat in 1991 when it was to be abandoned because it was too old, too slow and too outdated to be used for a charter boat business,” he says.
It sat in storage until 2013, when Parker spurred Wilson to make the decision to get the boat restored.
Restoring historically valuable things is more than a hobby to the men. In 1980 Wilson and Parker, who is originally from Raleigh, founded the nonprofit Outer Banks Conservationists, which is best known for its restoration and management of the Currituck Beach Light Station. In 2010 they also opened Island Farm, a 19th-century living history site at the Etheridge farmstead on Roanoke Island. The men have been partners since meeting at architecture school at N.C. State University 40 years ago.
Wilson says he has paid heed to his grandfather’s admonition that it is necessary to respect those who came before in order to respect oneself and those who come after.
“In addition, while getting my master’s in historic preservation in Washington in the 1970s,” he says, “I remember something a professor said often: ‘Preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.’
“I enjoy that conversation.”
Wilson sees preservation of the Outer Banks’ sense of place as an intergenerational responsibility.
“Every time Billy and I successfully restore or protect and preserve something,” he says, “I think of my grandfather. I think he was right. And I think we all have an obligation to preserve the past for the enjoyment and enrichment of the future generations.”
Since Wilson and Parker don’t fish, they thought it more appropriate to take the Deepwater back to its picnic days, Wilson says, and to leave the charter fishing days to retellings of the Lee Perry escapades.
For the time being, the Deepwater will remain at the Manteo waterfront, quietly memorializing generations of Outer Bankers and their stories. A family member who enjoys fishing has been invited to take the boat out on occasional offshore trips, but its ultimate fate has yet to be determined.
“Whether it goes to the maritime museum or something else,” Parker says, “we don’t know yet.”
The Deepwater still has its original juniper hull. The unusual stern is pre-Carolina flare-style, more of a blending of Harkers Island and Northern influences. The boat, which draws 3 feet, includes a lower cabin with a V-berth and a head with a shower that was converted from the original galley.
Even with its brand-new engine, the boat’s top speed is 21 knots. It doesn’t offer a particularly smooth ride — it tends to bounce on the water instead of slicing it — but it provides a satisfying, wind-whipping-your-hair experience.
It took 18 months for Wade Davis to restore the vessel. Davis comes from a long line of Outer Banks boat builders, including the designer of the Roanoke Island shad boat, George Washington Creef. Davis is the son of late yacht builder Buddy Davis, another notable Outer Banks character who was instrumental in making Outer Banks boat building a mega-million-dollar industry.
Having grown up on the docks in Wanchese, Davis was familiar with the Deepwater from the Lee Perry days. But he says it was “bad-looking” after being stored for so long.
“The barn was dry as a daggone bone, which is not the best thing for a boat,” Davis says.
Poking around with his pocketknife, Davis realized that things weren’t as bad as they first appeared. Not only was the vessel salvageable, even capable of being restored to near-new condition, Davis says, it was also impressively well-crafted. Tight joinery had saved the boat from rot. Ultimately, only small parts of the cabin, mostly the windows, needed replacement. Davis also replaced the mahogany doors and trim and reconstructed the flybridge, working off photographs of the original vessel that Wilson had provided.
The boat attracted much attention at his Wanchese shop from the locals who remembered its charter fishing years, he says.
“Oh, gosh, everybody says that thing was an icon here,” Davis says. “The captain was very charismatic.”
Davis credits Wilson for seeing the value of restoring the Deepwater and says he was proud to be able to bring back a boat with so much Outer Banks history.
“It was a hoot,” Davis says. “I was blessed to get an opportunity to do something like that.”
John’s father, Jack, a former administrator with the N.C. Ferry Division, says he “thought it was wonderful” when the Deepwater was returned in August 2015, good as new, to the water.
“I was real happy — very, very happy,” he says. “It was too nice a boat to just let go.”
It’s the boat’s history, coming full circle to where it started with the same family, that makes it so satisfying to have it back, Jack says, with his wife and son next to him nodding in agreement.