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The Albemarle Sound Shad Boat...
North Carolina's State Boat

By Tom Harrison

The Albemarle Sound, being an expansive but relatively shallow body of water, has a reputation for being extremely rough in high winds. Therefore in the days of sail, traditional small sailing craft were generally not well-suited for weather conditions in the Albemarle Sound. This led to the development and evolution of what became known as the Albemarle Sound Shad Boat.
This shallow draft work boat is unique because it is the only known America sailboat design that had a combination of a spritsail, jib, and a topsail! (A sprit is a pole or spar extended diagonally upward from a mast to the topmost corner of a fore-and-aft sail, serving to extend the sail. A spritsail doesn’t usually have a traditional boom along the bottom of the sail.) The topsail was added to provide additional working canvas high in the air so the boats could work close to forested shores that would becalm the lower spritsail or jib.

The Albemarle Sound Shad Boat is a durable round-bottomed boat with a heart-shaped transom. It was developed after the Civil War and was also known as a “seine boat”. It had a straight bow that was sharply raked, (a boating term meaning, inclined from vertical). Typically, tShad Boat Diagramhe Albemarle Sound Shad Boat was 18’-33’ in length and was constructed with native Atlantic White Cedar, locally known as Juniper. In boat shops this light-weight naturally rot resistant wood was often called “Southern Cedar”.

The hull was carvel planked, meaning the board planking ran longitudinal and was attached to the frame with nails or screws. The advantage of this traditional construction method was that if a board began to rot or was damaged, it could easily be removed and replaced without ripping the boat apart. The hull was un-decked except for washboards along the gunwales and was most often painted white. It was ballasted with 15-30 sandbags, depending on the size of the boat. The sandbag covers were made of sailcloth and the sandbags were shifted from the center to the windward side during a blow.

As the days of sail power waned, many Albemarle Sound Shad Boats were fitted with engines. This required them to retrofit the hull so it would get up on top of the water – or up on plane. The local term was to “hobble” the hull at the stern with an addition to the hull that eliminated the heart-shaped transom and made it more flat bottomed. Local resident, CJ Belch, whose father owned and operated the Welaka Fish & Produce Co. in Mackeys remembers that the hobble would often leak and trap water in the cavity between the hobble and the original hull, which caused the hull to rot.

Production of the Albemarle Sound Shad Boat ended in the 1930’s, although they continued to be used frequently through the 1950’s. These boats were so well built that many Albemarle Sound Shad Boats survive today – some over 100 years old. If you keep a close eye out you may see them in the backyards or canals in the coastal communities of northeastern North Carolina. But one of the best places to see examples of this traditional water craft is at the Maritime Museum in Plymouth!

Albemarle Sound Shad Boat had a reputation for being safe, fast, and maneuverable, as well as carrying a heavy payload of herring or shad. Howard Chapelle, in his definitive book, American Small Sailing Craft, writes, “The shad boats had a great reputation for speed and seaworthiness; the latter was an important quality in the larger sounds..." Put simply, the Albemarle Sound Shad Boat was the “pick-up truck” of watercraft on the Albemarle Sound. Because of its unique design and prolific use in the shallow North Carolina sounds, in 1987 the Albemarle Sound Shad Boat was designated the North Carolina State Boat by the General Assembly.

The Albemarle Sound Shad Boat
Shad Boats...The Pick-Up Truck of 19th Century North Carolina Watercraft

See a shad boat for yourself at the Roanoke River Maritime Museum.