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This is Carolina: Son carries on father’s 57-year boat-making legacy

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 5:35 PM EDT
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CONWAY, S.C. (WMBF) - Many dads pass traditions on to their sons and daughters.

This particular dad had a knack for a Carolina tradition not all possess. It began on the waters of the Waccamaw River back in 1964. That’s when Willard’s Boat Works was born.

“For my dad, it started as a hobby for everybody to have something on the water. Back in them days, they didn’t have much to play with on the water. So, he made a boat made out of strips of wood for himself to go out to play on the water,” Joe Willard said of his father, Yvonne.

He had seen strip boats around, but wanted one built for speed. That, he said, is what makes Yvonne Willard’s strip boats different from the rest.

“Before you know it, instead of him doing his full-time job, it turned into an occupation. The store that he had for years used to be at Nixon’s Cross Roads,” the younger Willard said.

Before that, Joe Willard said his dad and his uncle built boats out of a store called Ocean River Sports Center. In 2009, operations were moved to the family’s land.

The younger Willard said his dad’s boat-building talents came naturally. Eventually, he could build a boat in 12 hours for his customers.

“In those years there was a lot of them. They were all over the river. I remember as a little boy going to the river and seeing, you know, 20 strip boats lined up all the way down the shore,” Joe Willard said.

During the 1970s and early ‘80s, his dad made every single one of those strip boats. According to Joe, he also made tunnel boats and would enter them in various races.

One boat was called the “Dixie Twister.” Willard said only a handful of people had the courage to drive it. He said it takes a lot to know how to drive a strip boat, but the Dixie Twister was a different beast, going up to 83 mph.

According to Joe Willard, most of his strip boats are only 180 pounds. They “fly” and “float” across the water, something one has to see to understand.

They’re made with different types of wood that are different colors. The most striking one is dark in color. Willard explained that’s “sinker cypress” wood, plucked from river beds after soaking in mud for decades.

“When they were actually cutting it years ago, they were throwing the logs into the river and they would tie it all together and it would float down the river to the mill. What happens is, every once in a while, one would get loose and it would sink. Mud would get into the grain,” he said.

Joe Willard said in the strip boat he was building, there were 4,000 crown staples, resin and 780 feet of gage wire holding it in place. He sanded, coated and shined it and did it again.

He also burns the wood for special coloring. A strip boat is built with a curve similar to a Coke bottle, Willard said. He’s proud to carry on the tradition he helped his dad with as a child.

Yvonne Willard passed away on Jan. 7, 2006. He built his last boat in 1999 with his son.

“He did say that it’s a lost art, Joe. And he says, ‘I am proud of you for taking this on because it’s not easy. It’s not easy to do something like this and that’s why you don’t see many people doing it anymore,’” Joe Willard said.

To learn more about Willard’s Boat Works or to contact Joe, click here to go to his website.

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