As master boatbuilders of Chesapeake Bay wooden deadrise commercial fishing boats have succumbed to time, a small Virginia boatbuilding infrastructure has come to life.

James W. “Jimmyjohn” Hunley Jr. of Deltaville, Va., is one of several watermen who paid attention as a young man to the craftsmanship of master builders such as Grover Lee Owens, Edward Diggs, Willard Norris and others.

Hunley grew up in New Point, Va. in Mathews County, a generational hotbed area for wooden boatbuilding. Right out of high school, he landed a part-time job at the late Steward Edward’s railway on Gwynn’s Island, Va. and there he learned basic skills of wooden boatbuilding.

After years of working in the bay’s crab, oyster and pound net fisheries and today as a tugboat captain, he uses his off-time to repair and rebuild boats for local watermen. He is currently refurbishing one of the largest deadrise boats built by Willard Norris during Norris’ 70-plus year stint building boats in Deltaville. Norris died in January 2021.

The 44’x12’x4’ Aubri Lynn was built in 1988. “She has got a good bottom and good sides but I’m going to have to rework most everything else,” says Hunley in his backyard boat shop in April. Hunley recently built a new, well lite, boat shed to work on the boat.

“I do a lot of work at night,” says Hunley. “So, I installed plenty of lights for night work.”

The Aubri Lynn needs a new pilothouse, new mahogany transom, new aft bulkhead, and needs repairs to the stem and washboards. The 150-gallon aluminum gas tank is going to be removed, coated over with two coats of epoxy paint and reinstalled.

The boat had a Detroit Diesel engine but Hunley plans to install either a 400 h.p. Cummings Diesel engine or a 3126 Caterpillar Diesel. “She needs a lighter engine,” says Hunley.

“She has good bones and Willard used a Bio-Based adhesive (Resorcinol glue) on the strip-planked hull,” he says. “It is a process used to seal seams and a method they came up with before West System Epoxy. It worked good and I don’t have to chase seams (with cotton caulking).

“I’m not a boatbuilder. I am a fix-it guy,” says Hunley. “At one time I was keeping up about 15 wooden boats for watermen. A wooden boat will last a longtime if they are maintained properly. I love a wooden deadrise and I admire greatly the men who perfected the art of building them.”

Have you listened to this article via the audio player above?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

Larry Chowning is a writer for the Southside Sentinel in Urbanna, Va., a regular contributor to National Fisherman, and the author of numerous books.

Join the Conversation