A version of this story was originally printed in On the Rip, the Tournament Magazine of South Jersey Tournaments, Cape May, NJ All photos are from the Karl Anderson Collection
By Karl Anderson
Deep in the heart of the South Jersey Pine Barrens the headwaters of the Mullica, Bass and Wading rivers begin to gently flow through the densely wooded forests percolating through ponds and small lakes. The flow transforms their sweet waters as they wind through the bogs and cedar swamps all the way to the vast salt marsh where it mixes with the salty sea water of the Atlantic. These nutrient rich and beautiful areas have produced several well known and proven timbers that have lent themselves perfectly for building boats, homes, barns, carving decoys, you name it they are well suited. Most notably the aromatic and mellow Jersey Atlantic white cedar and white oak that prior to fiberglass had been used for hundreds of years to build sturdy, seagoing boats of all manner for every purpose imaginable as required for commerce of the day, transportation, work and recreation. The proximity to large cities like Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York also placed this area in an enviable position to get products to those markets.
This area of New Jersey also produced a hearty, hard-working population that intertwined life with the surrounding resources of the woods, marsh and waters of the rivers, bays and certainly the ocean. The necessity to get on the water and have boats that were purpose built to make a living or simply feed the family became paramount to their sustainability. The abundant natural resources of cedar, oak, pine, salt, salt hay, wildfowl, oysters, clams, fish and a good sandy soil to grow food plots offered the opportunities of life to these independent people of the pines, affectionately known as “Piney’s.”
Eric Mullica sailed up the river that today bears his name sometime near 1695 and settled on the north side the river where he set up a farm and sawmill in what is now known as Lower Bank. Some five years later a fellow named Thomas Clark settled onto the south side of the river and established Clark’s Landing, while some twenty-five years later the dutch sea captain Yoos Sooy came up river, settled next to Eric Mullica and the combined enterprises supplied timber for shipbuilding that in a nearly one hundred year period left the river areas virtually stripped of trees.
Through the American Revolution and into the late mid-1800’s ship and boat building flourished in the area with a need for vessels to transport the prized timber as well as harvesting of shellfish and fish. There were many specialty craft developed and built along the Jersey coast during these years including the garvey, credited to Gervas Pharo, a West Creek bayman from the 1700’s. The garvey is flat bottomed, blunt-bow work boat designed to ply the shallow bays for all types of work especially clamming, crabbing and waterfowling and is still being built today.
Another exceptional local craft is the Barnegat Bay sneakbox, a specialty gunning boat developed in 1835 by Capt. Hazelton Seaman of West Creek that became a world-re-known racing sailboat in 12, 15 and 20 foot classes. In one year builder J. H. Perrine from his shop in Barnegat built 115 of the 15-foot racers.
Probably the most noteworthy and influential boat design for the area was the Sea Bright Skiff and her southern sister, the Atlantic City skiff. An adaptation from the Norwegian sjekte, a double-ended boat that was used in Norway’s inshore fisheries and related trades was the result of a long evolution on Norway’s southern coast.
Along the Jersey coast over a nine year period in the 1800’s there were 158 shipwrecks, The coast was heavily traveled due to the New York shipping lanes to the north and the Delaware bay to Philadelphia to the south. During one nor’easter in February of 1846 there were 10 ships pushed on the beach from Sandy Hook to Cranberry inlet which was due east of Toms River. These wrecks and one in particular off Barnegat Light led to the founding of the U.S. Life Saving Stations. With the need for a versatile, lightweight boat that could be launched and retrieved from the beach with a small crew, the lifeboat was designed with an angled, squared-off transom from the evolution of the sjekte. The need for these specialty craft gave many families the opportunity to make a good living while providing a necessary service by building boats, repairing them and ultimately staring a thriving industry that lasted for over a century and in a much smaller way still prods on today.
The Van Sant’s – Atlantic City
The Van Sant family built and serviced boats in Atlantic and Burlington Counties for nearly 180 years. In 1760, John Van Sant started the first shipyard at the Forks of the Little Egg Harbor upon purchasing land from from a Richard Wescoat. At some point in the early Van Sant moved from the Forks and opened a yard on the Bass River at New Gretna. A Bass River sloop, the 52-ton Friendship appears in a list of registered vessels in 1800. Another yard was open in 1895 by Nicholas Van Sant in Port Republic extending that family legacy.
It was in Atlantic City around 1885 that the brother’s Joel II and Edward Van Sant opened the first yard there. Five years later, Gardners basin was dredged and various family members operated three boat yards over the years developing not only a loyal customer base but a crop of boat builders that would go on to build cruisers and the early sportfishing boats.
The Leek’s – Mullica River
Perhaps the Leek family are the most renown for building recreational and sportfishing boats. With a heritage of building boats on the Mullica starting sometime between 1712 and 1715, the Leek name has long been floating on the tides of the nations waters.
Charley, “C.P.” Leek got a start and became a seasoned veteran as a member of the Life Saving Service which lore has it gave him the left eye injury requiring a patch to cover it. Along with his great-uncle, Charley started a yard on the bay in Atlantic City building pleasure boats around the turn of the century. They worked into building passenger carrying sailboats like the “Captain Starns” and many others for the fleet at Beach Haven.
Charley came on hard luck and moved back to the Mullica River and opened CP & Leek and Son’s building all kinds of custom boats may designed by Lockwood Haggas. According to Naval Architect David Martin, CP’s son, John E. Leek was “the bad boy of the Leek family because he worked with other people. He worked for Adam Price of Parkertown, Carl Adams of Port Republic, John Trumpy, who was the Naval Architect for Mathis Boats in Camden in the drafting room.” According to Martin, “he probably got a better all-around boat building education than anybody in those years. During the war, he worked for the Navy, he was the inspector of many of the boats being at built at small yards for the war effort. Companies such as Ventnor Boat Works and Chapelle built patrol boats and other craft for the government.”
Russell Post also worked for Carl Adams on the Nacote Creek, Ventnor Boat Works and at the Navy Yard. John E. and Russell got to know each other at the Ventnor yard and when the war wound down it left them looking around as to what they would to do, so in 1946 they started the Egg Harbor Boat Company building a 28-footer taking over just a small pice of the C.P.’s shop that they rented. After a disagreement John E. and Post parted ways and in 1948 John E. and his brother Cecil started Pacemaker Corp. and began production building of a 29-footer designed by Lockwood Haggas then continued with a slew of boats deigned by David Martin. John E. had two sons’s, Jack and Donald who both worked at Pacemaker and built it into a large company after John E.’ s death in 1957.
In 1966 Pacemaker under the guidance of Jack and Donald started a company called Alglass which Don was president of and began building molded fiberglass boats. Their first effort was a 25-footer taken off a wooden Pacemaker that was first a sedan with a flybridge and no windshield, which sold over one thousand units. They then introduced the center console version, the “Wahoo” which is still popular today with the Jersey coast stripped bass fisherman. After the sale of Pacemaker to Fuqua Industries, then Mission Marine, the company foundered under the leadership of bean counters and faded away.
In 1977, Jack Leek opened up shop on the Mullica River with a group of former Pacemaker foreman who all leveraged homes or whatever to become partners. This humble beginning was the start of the powerhouse builder Ocean Yachts. With efficient new designs from naval architect David Martin of Brigantine, the company introduce a 40-footer that was the first true 30-knot production boat. Their second release was a 55-footer that was taken from a set of plans Don Leek had drawn by Martin as a 53-footer, that 55 topped out at 35-knots. From there the team at Ocean developed a full line of boats including 46 and 48-footers that once up and running in production they could turn out a boat every Friday. With designer interiors, maximum use of space layouts and unmatched efficiency and speed, the company flourished under the leadership of Jack and his son John E. III. However, much like the tides of the area, recessions come and go typically hitting the recreational boat business very hard and the company finally succumbed.
Russell Post – Atlantic City and Mays Landing
One of the founding partners in Egg Harbor Boat Corp., Russell Post stayed on after John E. Leek left to start Pacemaker. Post eventually sold his shares in Egg Harbor to Pee Wee Cure and in 1957 started his own company, Post Marine, building wooden 34-footers in May’s Landing on the Great Egg Harbor River. The company went on to build other wooden models including transitioning into fiberglass with a popular 42-footer and then a 46. In 1975 Post sold the company to partners Charlie Waters and Bill Schell who ran it very successfully until a national recession took its toll on the builder.
Carl Adams got his start with the VanSant Boat yard in Atlantic City at 16 years of age. He built his first shop at around 19 years old in 1905 building garveys and sneakboxes for local baymen. In short order he outgrew that shop and built a larger one in 1917. Once again he sold this shop and built yet another one in the city. In 1920 the Volstead Act was passed and prohibition lit up the boat building business in south Jersey. Adams built rum runners and law enforcement boats for the Coast Guard.
The Great Depression and the repeal of Prohibition on 1933 forced the closing of that shop. He opened a new shop in with his son Alvin in 1935 called the Modern Boat Works on the Nacote Creek in Port Republic where they built custom sportfishing boats for the charter captains. During WWII the Adams, father and son were sent to built airplane rescue boats for the government in Cambridge, Maryland. Returning to Nacote Creek after the war the Adams began making production 21, 24, 26 and 30-footers in the Jersey Skiff tradition. They also built many private boats including a 60-footer and charter boats for the famous Oyster Creek fleet, notably some 40-foot walk-arounds that fished well up into the late-90’s. Without question, Adams, known for a high standard of quality in every boat he built is a key figure in South Jersey boatbuilding history as many of the names who went on to build boats at one time or another worked with or for Adams.
Adam Price- Parkertown
Starting in 1926 from a shop on Route 9, Adam Price who was a baymen by summer became a prolific builder of all types of boats including racing hydrofoils and garveys but he was especially focused on sportfishing boats. A large majority of the boats for the large Beach Haven Yacht Club Charter fleet were built by Price. Most of these were of the “bateau” style, 32 to 36 footers typical of the day.
One of these was noted Capt. Tom Jones’ “Miraamy” who along with his wife made the annual pilgrimage from the tuna grounds off Long Beach Island to West Palm Beach for sailfish season through the 1930’s up to the war, quite a journey for the time. At some point around the great depression, Carl Adams came to Parkertown and helped Price layout larger boats which put Price in good position for after WWII. A multi-talented builder Price also made his own patterns for hardware to have them cast per his specification as well as building his own fighting chairs. During WWII from the modest shop in Parkertown, Price ran three-eight hour shifts and produced over 700 boats for the war effort including landing craft used in the Normandy invasion and many other theaters of the war as well.
After the war Price built several 42-footers for himself which he called “Southwind”. By the time he retired from boat building at age 50, he was running charters from his boats out of the Beach Haven Yacht Club and chartered the winters in West Palm Beach. His last boat the “Southwind V” was a culmination of many refinements specifically for sportfishing.
Just west of Ocean City the Troth Boat Works started by Clem Sr. and son Clem Jr. built 29 and 32′ fishing boats as well as many custom boats Including the Kontes brothers Prowler II, III, IV and Doc Lummis’ “Fishin’ Fool” that fished offshore from Cape May. Troth boats were fixtures at many Cape May and Atlantic county marinas.
Viking Yachts-New Gretna
On the shores of the Bass River, where the Viking yard now stands was the farm and shipyard of John Mathis, a prolific builder in his day. Mathis started building boats near that land around 1729, building coastal schooners working the timber trade. 230-years later a young Bob Healey would come upon a 258-acre section of John Mathis’ land. The New Jersey Parkway was being constructed and a large area of dreading occurred to use as road bed fill. This dredging created a circular harbor that Healey and his investment partners would develop into a marina once they recruited his brother Bill to oversee the construction. By 1961 the marina was ready for tenants but they were hard to come by so to make ends meet they became boat dealers. They sold Owens boats for a time but needed a Jersey boat. The big builders of the day, Egg Harbor, Pacemaker and Luhrs did not want to disrupt their dealer networks so there were no opportunities.
Continuing the search, they found Carl Peterson an upstart German builder in Egg Harbor who called his company Peterson Viking Yachts. He was building a typical sedan style boat of the day with competitive quality and could complete 10-12 boats a year – the Healey’s sold seven of Peterson’s boats two years in row. With boat slip rentals still slow, the boat sales helped greatly. Unfortunately, Peterson Viking Yachts was failing, and a bank loan was calling. Being in the right place at the right time, Bill Healey had spent a great deal of time at the Peterson shop and saw opportunity. When their other partners did not want to be in the business, Bill and Bob gave the marina to the partners and they took the land behind the marina and converted a winter storage facility into a boatbuilding facility, it was 1964 and they rename the operation Viking Yacht Company. Though expanded several times over the years, that original building is still there today.
The early wood boats were a 37 Sedan, 37 Sportfish and a 44 Motoryacht but in 1971 they transition to fiberglass with a 33 foot Convertible, in 1972 they introduced a 40-footer that sold over 600 units. Through the ’70’s and ’80’s Viking continued to develop new products that sold well such as their 46 and 48 footers. The mid-nineties brought basically a new line of very successful boats and the 2000’s have seen an incredible push for fresh, new, highly styled product. An almost total vertical integration from interior customization, towers to electronics, a strong global dealer network and a focus on sportfishing previously only found on custom boats has hurled the company forward to lead the industry and become the behemoth it is today. Viking Yachts are fished and cruised the world over and that is certainly a credit to their drive for quality, function and total customer satisfaction.
New Jersey may be the butt of “what exit” jokes, but there is no denying the states deep rooted history of boat building and how it has impacted not only the country but the world. wither her inviting coastline, bountiful estuaries, bays and often cantankerous inlets the need for well-designed, solid built boats has driven builders to create some of the most recognized and respected sea boats on the water today.