Saturday, July 22, 2017  

Willard Norris: Chesapeake Bay Deadrise Master Builder


In those days a summer morning on Jackson Creek began with the occasional chirp of a fire red cardinal or the whistle of a whippoorwill. The early morning chorus grew louder as a seagull sounded his shrill alert to his mates that a school of fish is rippling the surface of the water. Soon along the shores of the creek there are the sounds of hammers, the creak of hand saws, the scrape of the foot adz and the whining of block and tackle ropes straining. In the early years, when commercial boats were powered by sail, the snap of sails taking the wind were part of the cacophony. Jackson Creek has always been an ideal place to build and repairs boats.

Sails gave way to internal combustion engines right about the time young Willard Norris was old enough to hang around boats. His early playground was the grounds of three separate boatyards owned by his grandfather Ed Deagle, his Uncle Pete Deagle and his Uncle Alfred Norris. In those three boatyards, along with several others, the art of building deadrise boats was hone to perfection. Willard Norris was an eager student of the hands-on scene of boatbuilding that played out practically in his own backyard.

Willard Norris was born and raised on Lovers Lane in Deltaville. His home was just down the road from where legendary boatbuilders worked on the shores of Jackson Creek. As a child, Norris said, he would spend hours watching John Wright build sixty-five foot long boats right there on the shore. Norris recalls how John Wright used only hand tools, a foot adz, hand planes, rip-saws and nothing more. Norris marveled that John Wright did not use power saws or power anything. He was the power and the skill that built legendary deadrise boats.

Young Willard had his choice of master boatbuilders to watch along Lovers Lane. He can recall the places along Lovers Lane where boats were built by John Wright and Ladd, Tom and Lewis Wright, along with the boatbuilding sites of Rob Dudley, Hugh Norris, Willie Marchant and Alfred Norris.

At age 16, Willard Norris went to work summers for his Uncle Lee Deagle, the owner of Deagle and Son Marine Railway, which was one of the largest marine railways in the area. Norris said in those days there were lots of people who were willing to help a young boy learn. He said, “There were so many woodworkers there in those days working on boats that they were happy to give you advice and share a tip on just how to do something.” Norris said his Uncle Alfred taught him how to set up and actually build a boat. It was his Uncle Lee who he credits with teaching him how to work with wood. He learned how to build deadrise boats literally from the ground up. There were neither classes to attend nor plans to follow. The learning came from watching skilled woodworkers use their primitive tools to turn raw wood into the frames, planks and keelsons of a deadrise boat. Deadrise boats are built by “rack of eye.”

At age 18, Willard married Shirley Harrow. Willard set out to build himself a round stern deadrise boat so he could go patent-togging for oysters. There was no building shed behind his house to work in, so like many deadrise boatbuilders, he set to work in the open air. Norris said he laid out the boat in the backyard just like he had been taught to do by his uncles. John Wright would come over every morning, check over the work Willard had done the previous day and advise Willard on how he was building the boat. John Wright had a special interest in Willard because Wright’s wife’s, Blanche, was Shirley Norris’s aunt.

John Wright’s encouragement gave Willard Norris the confidence to embark on a lifetime of building the best quality deadrise boats possible.

In the 1960s, Willard Norris joined the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) where he worked days while still building boats and fishing at night and on his days off.
Shirley Norris told me Willard worked out in the boat shed until late in the evening. She said, “I used to shout out to him, if you don’t come into the house I am going to pull the main switch.” She said he would always say to me, “You are an unusual woman. Most woman fuss because their husband’s don’t want to work, you fuss because I want to work.”

Norris said money was tight when he and Shirley were first married in 1945. A man came along and asked him to build an 18 foot skiff. He did not have his shed built yet. They needed money to buy lumber and wallboard to finish the house, so Willard set out to build a skiff in the living room. The money he got from the skiff enabled the young couple to buy the materials they needed to finish the living room.

In 1946 Willard built his first big boat, a 38 foot round stern deadrise boat. With that boat he harvested oysters using a patent tongue. Three years later he bought a crab dredge boat, and he did that until the bay got overrun with mussels. Eventually he went to work for VMRC and was in charge of buying and maintaining all their boats. He retired after 30 years with VMRC. All the while he kept building boats and fishing.

In the 60s, Willard switched over to building box stern deadrise boats in the 40 foot range. People, he said, seemed to want to get away from the round stern boats and wanted box sterns.
Several years ago Willard was given only months to live when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Shirley says that even when he was very sick and undergoing chemotherapy, he would work in his boat shed building skiffs in back of their home on Lovers Lane.

In the year 2001, Norris took on the task of building a 32 foot deadrise in his shed. He called it the Last One. Norris’s boat shed is typical of the kind of buildings most boatbuilders used back in the heyday of wooden boats. It is built just behind Norris’s home and is chock full of woodworking tools used and collected by Willard Norris. Some of his tools came from old boatbuilders who have retired. Hanging from the rafters is and old sailing ship block and tackle Willard has used for years to hoist up and turn over the basic deadrise frame once it was all assembled with the keelson in place.

The word around Deltaville watermen has been for many years that Willard Norris builds one of the best Chesapeake Bay deadrise boats available. Surprisingly many of his boats are in regular use thirty years later. One of the most famous of these is a boat named the Rainbow Chaser.

Willard Norris built the Rainbow Chaser for Mr. Sonny Gay who was a working waterman. When he passed away in 1998 his son Shannon Gay took over the boat. Shannon told me that when his dad was alive they would race the boat at Harborfest.

Originally, the boat was powered with a 6V53 Detroit Diesel engine which was 210 HP. It was winning races then. Shannon said “Racing the Rainbow Chaser was my dad’s hobby. He loved to race that boat and he was so very proud of her. I remember that when he was having the boat built he would take us to Willard’s shop in Deltaville every other weekend to check on the progress. Dad had owned an older deadrise, but he wanted one built to his liking.” Shannon and his father really got serious about workboat racing in 1986. Shannon said his father had two things he really got excited about, workboat racing and the Redskins, most especially workboat racing. Shannon said he and his dad would sit at the dinner table many evenings and talk about all the things they were going to do to make the boat faster, check over photos and make plans. Shannon said, those evenings allowed me to become closer to his father.

In 2004, Shannon fitted the Rainbow Chaser with a Volvo Penta TAMD74 diesel engine which delivers 500 HP. Shannon said a lot of the boats he races against have twice the horsepower and some are much lighter fiberglass boats, but he pretty much beats them most of the time. He is confident he can beat any boat that is similar to his. Shannon has raced and won at Harborfest, Yorktown and Poquoson. Last year Shannon arranged for four generations of Norris’s, Willard Norris, his son Tuna and his grandson to ride in the Rainbow Chaser during a race at Harborfest. Using his expertise in marine engine power plants, Shannon Gay has been able to turn Willard Norris’s old deadrise in to a championship deadrise workboat racer.