by John Page Williams
Family, community and the water shaped the legacy of this quintessential Crisfield boatbuilder.
Rhodes Point is the smallest village on Smith Island. It has a paved state road that runs all of a mile-and-a-half up to Ewell, but its houses and its people are oriented to its waterfront on Sheep Pen Gut, which leads west to the open Chesapeake or east to the village of Tylerton. Eugene Evans grew up there—working the water, crabbing in summer, oystering in winter, and taking care of his boats. “I always liked to work on stuff,” he says, everything from wood planks to engines and hydraulic steering systems. Evans also began to gain a sense of how different hull shapes react to the seas of his home waters.
He moved his family to Crisfield in 1973. With the fishing business declining in the 1970s along with the Bay’s water quality, Evans began thinking about “getting into something different.” In 1980, he and his wife, Rose, founded Evans Boat Repair.
Over thirty-seven years the company has grown into a highly regarded three-generation family business with son David, daughter Christina, and grandson David Junior, a remarkable achievement in a volatile industry that has tested the Evans family work ethic, imagination, adaptability, craftmanship, integrity, and strong Christian faith. They have survived by working hard, serving their customers well, and paying close attention to business trends around the Chesapeake and the East Coast.
The key, as Eugene put it on our recent visit to the yard, “I wasn’t afraid to call people and ask questions. That’s how you learn.” David Jr. continued, “He’ll get ideas from here and there, put ‘em all in one bucket, and get a great answer. He’s ingenious, always thinking.” And he has passed those characteristics down through his family.
Evans began by building small 22 to 28-foot fiberglass crab-scraping boats modeled on the distinctive shallow-draft, low freeboard inboard workboats used by island watermen to catch peelers and soft crabs in the Tangier Sound grass meadows.
He began by building a mold around his father’s boat with quarter-inch foam core material that he covered with fiberglass, inside and out. “I taught myself as I went,” he says, “And I added a tunnel for the propeller with the help of a carpenter friend.”
Tunnel bottoms help boats run in shallow water, but a poor design can turn a hull into an inefficient, plodding disaster. The trick is to shape the tunnel in such a way that it encourages water to flow smoothly up onto the propeller blades, so they can bite solidly. Getting the design right is a blend of boat sense and art. Eugene nailed it. He had examined several Virginia-built workboats whose builders had incorporated “Deltaville hump” concave curves into the aft ends of the keels to reduce draft. He modeled his tunnel on them, “eight feet long with square sides providing lift so they sail flat at speed, with their sharp bows cleaving open choppy waves.”
Because both Eugene and his father were well-known in the islands and on the Crisfield waterfront, crab scrapers began to try the boats that came from the mold, and they liked what they found. The new boats performed well, and local watermen appreciated the low maintenance of the fiberglass hulls. Evans Boats began production.
Meanwhile, the firm’s ability to handle fiberglass material and Eugene’s understanding of hull construction led to steady boat repair and customization work. In the 1970s, many Tangier Sound watermen shifted from inboard deadrise workboats to large fiberglass skiffs built by production builders such as Parker, Privateer, Sea Ox, and T-Craft. They used these boats hard, but the hulls were basically durable. It was relatively easy for Evans to modify them for specific harvesting techniques, and to reinforce in hard-wear areas like gunwales and hull sides where pots are pulled in. To power and service the boats, the Evanses took on dealerships for Yamaha outboards, Volvo Penta gas and diesel inboards, and Volvo Duoprop inboard-outboard drives. Inevitably, they began to experiment in powering workboats with outboards and Duoprop I/Os. The first of those were 30-footers, but with success, they have extended the I/Os to 35- and even 42-footers.
The Evans family began to develop other hull models, gradually filling in sizes from 25 to 50-feet. Most of the designs came from the late Dave Sintes, a creative and prolific workboat builder/designer from New Orleans. Working with Sintes, Eugene added his own ideas, incorporating his experiences on the Chesapeake and feedback from customers. The Evans 42 hull is modelled on boats built by the late Gene Travers, whose shop was near the Choptank in Trappe.
Evans boats are known to run dry, fast, and able. Their lines are distinctive, blending design traditions from Maryland’s Eastern Shore with the proud bows of Virginia boats. With their knowledge of different customer needs and the ability to offer custom layouts, the Evans team could build platforms for crabbing, oystering, gill-netting, charter fishing, carrying passengers and freight for hire, and pleasure cruising.
By the turn of the new century, the yard was hopping, building eight to 10 boats a year. Some were completely finished while others were delivered ready to be outfitted, powered and rigged by the watermen owners. Repairs, engine sales and service, and parts supply added to the activity.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2006, disaster struck. A late-night malfunction in the heating system lit the shop on fire. Four new boats and all of the molds were destroyed. Faced with disaster, the family first gave thanks that no one was hurt and then they set to work rebuilding. Their primary goal was to keep their employees working so as to provide everyone income for Christmas. They built plugs for new molds and finished the four replacement boats by spring. Evans Boats was back up to full production capability by summer. Several of the boats were new designs with sharper forward entries, reversed chines for lift and spray suppression, and some topside flare from bow to stern.
Then, the 2008 recession brought new construction to a halt. No watermen, charter skippers, or recreational boaters could afford a new vessel. The repair business consequently took center stage as watermen and charter captains needed to keep their older boats running hard. Meanwhile, the Evans shop began building submersible hydraulic trailers for hauling and transporting vessels for maintenance. One major client for the service was and continues to be the fleet of Smith Island Cruises boats.
Since the recession, the company has built new boats for government and institutional clients such as the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground’s 43-foot patrol vessels that enforce the prohibited area around the post when it is testing ordnance. In 2010, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) contracted Evans for a U.S. Coast Guard-inspected 50-foot workboat, Bea Hayman Clark, which is based on the Potomac’s Washington Channel where she and her crew provide field studies for District of Columbia and Northern Virginia school students. Another Evans 50, Mary P., will soon join CBF’s fleet. Evans has also developed and built passenger catamarans, river tour boats, and pirate-themed
In 2011, the company launched Evans Boats Restorers, which goes more deeply into the repair business. One of the restoration subjects is Davy III, the original plug for the fiberglass scraping boats, which Eugene reworked in 2015 to allow him to return to the water business part-time in semi-retirement.
The most important segment of the restoration business is saving old wooden boats by covering them in fiberglass. For years, this process was considered the kiss of death, because the glass tended to separate from the wood and allow moisture inside to harbor rot. The Evans team worked out a method to dry out the boats indoors with heat and monitoring the drop in moisture content until the right time for fiberglass cloth, mat and resin. One example of how well the process works is the Loni-Carol II, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Tangier-based 46-foot education workboat, which was sheathed in the winter of 2016. Coast Guard inspection for vessels like her that carry over six passengers is rigorous. The fact that Loni-Carol II passes the test speaks well of the Evans workmanship and system.
An important key to the Evans success has been the family’s deep commitment to the Tangier Sound community. Eugene, David, and David Jr. are all certified emergency medical technicians with the volunteer fire company. David Jr. is an associate and youth pastor at the Living Hope Ministries where his father is a board member. Eugene fills a similar position at the Tabernacle Worship Center. Their concern for others showed especially when fire destroyed the Crisfield-based Chesapeake Boats facility. Evans quickly stepped up to provide shed space to Chesapeake Boats to continue work while they rebuilt the shop.
Through thick, thin, fire, recession, boom, and community, the Evans family has earned a solid reputation and enduring trust over nearly four decades.
John Page Williams has written about boats, boatbuilders, fish, fishermen, and the Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years.