The Creators of N.C.
From Loft to Launch
Mark Bayne sends his works to sea
By Wiley Cash
Photographs by Mallory Cash
Master shipwright Mark Bayne is standing in an open bay at the workshop where he has been teaching wooden boat building at Cape Fear Community College in downtown Wilmington for the past 10 years. Over his shoulder, the murky brown Cape Fear River plods slowly eastward, where it will meet the Atlantic Ocean in just a few miles. It’s not quite summer yet, but the day is hot and bright. A stiff, warm breeze rolls in off the river, adding to the late morning’s warmth.
All around us, people are working on a half-dozen wooden boats in various stages of construction. There’s a flats boat that was specially designed so fishermen can stand with stability and cast a line from the broad deck; beside it is a beautiful, narrow melon seed just waiting for a sail; in the far corner of the workshop is a Jersey speed skiff that, as soon as it’s complete, will move next door (to the engine program) for the fall semester, where the team who built it will fit it with an inboard motor.
After decades building boats on his own and another decade of teaching people to do the same, Mark is accustomed to being surrounded by the sounds of saws and routers, the fine mist of sawdust floating through the air. He’s also accustomed to teaching others to build a variety of different kinds of wooden boats because that’s what he made a career doing before he found himself in the classroom.
“I’ve specialized in not specializing,” he says.
Mark is tall and handsome in the way that capable people often are. It’s as easy to picture him captaining a boat as it is to picture him building one. He’s quick to smile, and he’s still carrying the glow of holding a new granddaughter who was born down in Charleston, South Carolina, just a few nights before. That’s where Mark was raised, and his whole family, including his wife and their four grown children, live there now.
He splits his time between the low country and the Cape Fear, teaching at the college during the week and heading home to Isle of Palms on the weekend. His wife used to make the trips with him, but now that she’s surrounded by grandchildren she’s less likely to leave home. Bayne understands. He hears the call to home. For that reason, this is the last course he’ll teach for Cape Fear Community College’s wooden boat building program.
But in order to understand how his time at the college is ending, you have to understand how it began.
He grew up on “the backside” of Isle of Palms, South Carolina, in the marsh, sailing small boats, swimming, and crabbing with his younger brother and kids from the neighborhood. When I ask if they were ever so bold as to round the island and head for the open water, he smiles and pauses as if his mother and father are within earshot. “Officially, we did not do that,” he says, meaning, of course they did.
After a brief stint in college, Mark dropped out and worked at Mount Pleasant Boatbuilding Company as a helper in the joinery shop, where he learned to build and fit small, intricate parts to boats. He already loved boats, and he found that he also loved building and working on them. A welder in the boatyard mentioned that he’d heard about a new wooden boat building program beginning up the coast at Cape Fear Community College.
Mark enrolled in 1978 and was a member of the program’s first class. With his classmates and instructors, he literally helped build the program: They put down the hardwood floor in the workshop, and they built the workbenches from old bowling alley lanes that had been stored in a chicken coop in Southern Pines.
After completing the program and getting his degree, Mark went back to the Mount Pleasant Boatbuilding Company with the knowledge of how to loft boats, which is the process of drawing out plans on the floor, cutting and fitting the pieces, and constructing the boats using hand tools. On the weekends, he worked for himself, meaning he built boats apart from his work at the boatyard. He found that he could make more money on his own while also building boats that interested and challenged him. In the late 1980s, he opened Sawdust Boatworks, and then he opened Sea Island Boatworks.
“No one has to have a boat,” Mark says, “so when someone hires you to build one, it’s a very special relationship.”
He can still remember the earliest boats he built. The first boat he built after opening Sawdust is still around; it’s a 14-foot marsh hen hunting boat. “That guy turned into a good customer,” Mark says. “I built multiple boats for him.”
“I enjoy building things,” he adds, “and boat building allows you to be creative. Sometimes you build a boat to a plan that somebody else drew, and sometimes you build a boat by eye. You’ve got to know a lot. I worked with a guy in Panama City, Florida, once, and we built a 68-foot shrimp boat, just him and me. He was the master and I was the apprentice, but there was no plan, so you have to know all the construction details. When you’re doing it by hand with no plan it’s called rack of eye. It’s fun, it’s rewarding.”
Over the decades, Mark traveled up and down the East Coast, building boats from the Gulf of Mexico to the Chesapeake Bay, including the iconic Spirit of South Carolina, a tall ship that was constructed and ported in Charleston. The keel was laid in the summer of 2001, and the final plank was installed in the summer of 2006.
In 2012, Mark left the boatyards of South Carolina, as well as his life as a far-ranging boatbuilder, and returned “home” to Cape Fear Community College as head of the Wooden Boat Building program, where his professional career had started over three decades earlier. When he arrived, he found that he wanted to bring his vast experience to bear on the program’s curriculum.
“They had a good program going, but it wasn’t the way I wanted to do it,” he says. For years, the program had focused on moving students through stages of instruction on several different boats at various levels of completion. The students learned piecemeal, but that meant that they never completed a whole boat from start to finish. “I wanted students to work from lofting to launching,” he says.
“Mark has done a great job of giving this program a shot of momentum,” says Walter Atkins, an instructor in the boat building program who has decades of experience as a boatwright, his specialty building custom boat interiors. “I’ve learned a ton from Mark. It’s been awesome. We don’t use software where everything is designed on a screen. This is 1,000 percent old school.”
Over three semesters, including a summer term, students begin working with hand tools before graduating to power tools. Soon, the class moves up to the loft above the shop floor where they draw life-sized plans for the various boats they want to build.
“People slowly pair up,” Walter says. “You see the groups start to clump together.”
Recent high school graduates partner with retirees. Often, service veterans find one another, bonding over their shared experiences and their interest in boat building. It’s clear that both Walter and Mark find relationships with student-veterans important and endearing.
“I don’t ask about their service,” Mark says, “but I listen when they talk about it.”
Soon, the class moves to the shop floor, building the forms, fairing the hulls, and fitting the interior cabinetry. By the end of the program, as many as six complete boats are ready for the water. Once the boats are proven seaworthy, they’re auctioned off on a public website, where eager buyers are already lying in wait. The boats are purchased by people up and down the East Coast.
It’s clear that Mark takes pride in his students’ work, and he admits that if not for his wife, four children and growing number of grandchildren living down in the low country that he’d continue to work in the boat building program at Cape Fear. But he’s not really retiring. He’ll work some with his oldest son, Coulson, who is now building boats on his own while making good use of the family name: He decided to call his company Son of Bayne Boatworks. And there’s a 145-year-old historic schooner down in Panama City that was destroyed by Hurricane Michael that Mark wants to get his hands on. He’ll be busy, but according to him, he won’t be working.
“Boat building has never been a job,” he says. “I’ve never felt like I had a job a single day in my life.” OH
Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.