HARKERS ISLAND, N.C. (AP) - As raindrops kept cadence overhead, Jamie Lewis hunched over a wooden creation that looked like an oversized, overturned centipede.
He had no blueprints to guide him, no pictures to illustrate the skeleton of the boat that would gracefully skim the waters. Yet he worked with a certainty that no textbook can imbue.
His navy T-shirt stained with sweat, gray tufts protruding from his cap, Lewis, 68, measured and cut and slipped each piece of wood into place.
''As far as using plans, we ain't ever done that,'' said Lewis' son, James, who explained the family business as his father worked on a hunting skiff in the shadow of a 41-foot Goliath, also put together without drafts. ''I grew up in it. Daddy grew up in it. It's just something you know how to do.''
They are craftsmen steeped in a Down East tradition that could propel the state's economy into the future.
Unlike tobacco or textiles, boat-building is a heritage industry that is growing in North Carolina and providing opportunities from east to west. In the past three years, 28 boat manufacturers have started in the state or moved here to take advantage of such artisans—not only those who honed their skills on boats, but those who once made furniture. Also, costs are lower here than in Florida or other rival states.
Earlier this month, Brunswick Corp., which makes Hatteras Yachts and Albemarle Boats in North Carolina, said that it will move three more models to a plant near Wilmington and create as many as 858 jobs while closing a factory in Maryland. Three other manufacturers have contacted the state about possible expansions since that announcement, said Mike Bradley, who leads marine-related recruitment for North Carolina.
That boosts to 21 the number of his projects that involve boat-building.
It's a boon for officials trying to replace at least a portion of the 260,000 production jobs that disappeared during the past decade as foreign competition intensified. They want to attract businesses with more permanence than those that need to be on the East Coast to reach customers, for instance, or with products in high demand. And they see boat-building as a good fit.
Baby boomers, with an estimated $8.5 trillion in accumulated wealth and another $7 trillion to inherit from their parents over the next 40 years, are retiring and seeking new ways to spend their leisure.
At the same time, there is a migration toward water. In the Southeast alone, coastal population density is expected to rise to 241 people per square mile by 2008, a 70 percent increase from 1980, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The trend should boost sales of boats and related products, state recruiters say, and benefit any area that makes such equipment.
''We feel like these jobs will stay here and continue to grow,'' Gov. Mike Easley said last week in Beaufort County, where a Florida company that makes boat lifts announced a new facility. ''We're a prime location and we think that's going to be good for us.''
But there are risks.
The boat market is cyclical, and worker rolls at plants can fluctuate. Currently, the industry is in one of its worst-ever slumps as consumers contend with higher fuel and food prices and other factors that have cut disposable income.
While big boat makers that cater to the wealthy have fared better, the pain is widespread, and many companies have retrenched. Fountain Powerboat Industries in Washington, N.C., which makes speed, fishing and cruising boats, has cut its staff by about 29 percent in the past year, mostly through attrition. That prompts a note of caution among some economic developers.
''We're trying to get jobs back, but I wouldn't want to get 20 boat plants in here,'' said Tom Thompson, who recruits businesses to Beaufort County. ''The state as a whole needs to be a little bit careful.''
A Coastal Tradition
The history of boat-building in North Carolina dates back at least two centuries, with deep roots on the coast, where generations made their living by the sea.
Jaime Lewis grew up on Harkers Island, which didn't get electricity until 1939, or a road to the mainland until the 1940s. He began building boats when he was 15 and remembers drawing them in class when he was supposed to be listening to teachers.
His life unfolds in photos that he keeps in a chest of drawers beside a tin wall caked in sawdust and decorated with tools.
''That boat there I built the first year I was married,'' said Lewis, who speaks quietly and in a dialect with hints of an Old English influence. ''The shed was 24 feet. The boat was 30. So I had to build it in the yard. Eight hundred dollars I got for that boat.''
Rebecca, Debbie, Captain Kenny, Captain Heber and Amy Carol appear in succession, all boats he built, each with a memory.
Lewis, his brother and his son operate as Lewis Bros. Like other boat makers on the island, they use a traditional style that has shaped modern techniques. They cut wood into strips to form the structure of the boat and cover it in fiberglass.
It's like building two boats, and its labor intensive. Creating a large vessel, like the 41-foot sport fishing boat in their shop now, can take 18 to 24 months.
As locals have fanned out from Harkers Island, Wanchese and other boat-building centers, they have carried skills and designs with them. That has created a multiplier effect and contributed to the growth of the industry in North Carolina.
More than 100 boat builders employ at least 4,500 people in North Carolina, double the employment a decade ago, according to data from the N.C. Employment Security Commission and Bradley, director of N.C. Boating Industry Services for the Small Business and Technology Development Center.
Add in suppliers and other marine-related businesses and total employment is closer to 30,000.
North Carolina is head and shoulders above other locations, said Dustan McCoy, chief executive of Brunswick, whose new plant will have about 15 percent of its production capacity in the state when the facility is fully operational.
The world's largest pleasure-boat maker has expanded in North Carolina after finding good factory locations and a work force that has skill and knowledge in and around boat-building.
Hidden Potential Inland
Another group of workers also is attractive. Laid-off employees who toiled for years in furniture have skills that are in demand, especially in plants that birth luxury vessels with mahogany, teak and other specialty woods that must be converted into cabinets, decking or decorative touches.
Because many boat makers don't have to be near water, some are gravitating west where the furniture industry is concentrated and land is cheaper. Chris-Craft, for instance, last year agreed to put a plant in Kings Mountain, west of Charlotte, in part because it wanted people familiar with upholstery.
Among the area's employers are yarn maker Parkdale Mills and Speciality Textiles, which produces furniture fabrics. Even the Triangle counts six boat builders, including Triumph and Golden Wooden Boats, both of Durham.
To make North Carolina more marketable and increase opportunities for residents, educational institutions statewide have stepped up training. The Golden LEAF Foundation, which oversees public funds, has provided $2.1 million in grants to Carteret Community College, the College of The Albemarle, Wilkes Community College and Western Piedmont Community College for marine and advanced materials programs applicable to boat-building.
When those efforts aren't enough, state and local governments have shown a willingness to sweeten the appeal with grants and other aid. Brunswick was promised as much as $4.6 million in incentives, provided it meets hiring and other goals, to expand in Navassa, a small town outside Wilmington.
North Carolina has been aggressive at recruiting the boat industry, said Bradley, adding that the state is facing tough competition from neighbors such as Georgia and South Carolina. As in retail development, boat builders can serve as a prime economic tenant to anchor an industry cluster, attract suppliers and multiply the number of jobs that come to the state.
Work inside modern boat plants is faster than in traditional shops. A large boat can be churned out in weeks, not months. But the labor is still intensive.
In a factory that makes fiberglass vessels, the pungent odors of resins and epoxies sting the senses as employees apply them to molds. They apply fiberglass sheets and other materials in layers that dry in molds before cranes lift them out like freshly baked cakes.
From an outside viewpoint, it looks messy. It looks dirty.
''But with a lot of the newer technologies we're using, it's clean work,'' said Jim Roach, shop manager at Brooks Boatworks. ''You either love it or you hate it.''
Jaime Lewis didn't have much of a choice. He was drafted into the profession as a teenager by his father, who made boats part time. He still recalls the sounds of a ball field nearby, where he would have rather been. But he doesn't complain.
''It's given me a job all these years,'' he said.
Business isn't what it was though, a function of a market slowdown and industry evolution. Customers increasingly are going to the new companies the old-timers helped spawn. And Lewis wonders about the future of his craft. The traditional type of boat-building is a dying thing, he said.
''It's like a new generation coming up now.''