Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
Meet him at the shop he said. I swear that’s what he said. I have followed Jason Brownlee’s directions: turn off Amboy Road into Carrier Park. Go straight ahead till the dirt road tees into a paved road. Keep going until you come to a gravel driveway. Follow the driveway…
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hrough some bushes and into a clearing where there’s an automotive shop, but no sign (literally or figuratively) of French Broad Boatworks. So I ask at the mechanic’s. “On around back,” somebody says.
So I drive around the corner. Gravel road is now a track of mashed-down weeds. Exit vehicle and stand in calf-high grass. A fair-sized blacksnake crosses in front of the car. Encouraging: probably no copperheads in immediate vicinity. On my left, through some trees, the world’s third-oldest river glides, brown and placid. On my right is the rear of the building and a blank white door in a blank white wall. I try the door. It’s locked. It’s humid; I swat at gnats.
Just then a dark SUV turns the corner and the man himself bounces out, extending his hand. “Hey,” he says. “I’m Jason. I was waiting for you over at the launch site. I called your cell but no answer. I left you a message.” (I probably forgot to turn the phone on, but don’t mention this.) “That’s okay,” he says “You’re in the right place; this is the shop.”
He turns a key in the blank door, and we enter a smallish, tidy, two-room work area. The first room contains orderly stacks of planks arranged by size, the walls lined with shelves stocked with building supplies. There’s a welcoming, home-workshop smell of wood and paint. The inner room is dominated – filled, actually—by a Cadillac of rowboats.
It’s twenty or so feet long, high-sided like a dory. But where a dory is made of overlapping planks, this craft’s sides are as smooth and sleek as an automobile. The inside is fitted with two upholstered seats, the starboard one wide enough for two; the other, slightly aft and amidships, is obviously for the rower, centered between two heavy-duty, chrome-plated oarlocks.
And something else: the very center of the hull, a space of about four feet wide is…
“Completely flat,” says Jason. “You can stand on it, walk around on it, fish from it, whatever,” he says. “We call it the Rogue River pattern; it was introduced out there and, since the Rogue is bigger and deeper and faster than the French Broad, we thought it would make an ideal design to incorporate into our business plan.”
Jason and his partner, Will Evert, are not, strictly speaking, in the boatwright business, though they do make and sell “four or five boats a year,” with a price range, according to size, from $12,000 to $18,000. (Another, smaller Rogue River model is beginning to take shape in the far corner of the room.) Instead, what they’re doing is constructing their own fleet, custom-designed for the second half of their business, which is getting folks into the boats and taking them on the river for various recreational activities—one in particular.
“Our premium offering is a nice, leisurely trip down the river to Smoky Park Supper Club and back, “ Jason says. “The idea is, we take one or two couples at a time down to the supper club, drop them off for drinks and dinner, pick them back up and drop them off. I can show you from the launch site easier than I can describe it. Come on; we can walk.”
We leave the workshop and walk south by east through the high grass along the riverbank. About fifty yards on we come to the launch site. It’s a gatelike affair of still-new wood, flanked by a set of wooden steps. Suspended from the lintel of the gate is a sturdy looking pulley. Below, parallel to the steps, a pair of metal rails, set into substantial wooden posts, runs at a gentle angle directly into the water.
“We’re pretty proud of this setup,” Jason says. “The pulley’s winch is electric. You hook the boat up, guide it onto the rails, let your party get in, and slide everything nice and easy into the water. You don’t even risk getting your feet wet.” Having thus embarked, the passengers are rowed at a leisurely pace down – down being up, because this is the French Broad – to their supper destination some two miles away.
Jason’s arm sweeps forward and back across this view of the French Broad, maybe 150 yards and no more than shoulder high at this point, mirroring the first white, puffy clouds of the day. “The round trip itself is about two hours, plus the time they spend at the supper club,” he says. “Altogether it makes for a really nice, pretty evening in the later spring and summer, when the sun stays up a long time, and it doesn’t even begin to get dark until about nine o’clock. And in the fall of the year, it makes a really spectacular trip for the leaf-lookers. It’s beautiful. They don’t mind a bit that it gets chilly; they wrap up and enjoy it. I could even see doing it in winter. Winter on the river is beautiful; with the leaves off the trees you get a whole different view.”
He turns and indicates a “tiny house” a few feet away. “This is our ticket booth,” he says. “Let’s go in.”
I have been hearing about tiny houses a lot lately. They are an up-and-coming niche construction business designed to help take up some of the slack in the affordable housing market. This one is redwood stained and from the exterior seems to be about the same size as a six-person camping tent. Inside it’s a dwelling big enough for two— living space, shower and toilet, sleeping area and kitchen— as compact and self contained as a ship’s galley. “We—Will and I—have our own construction company apart from this,” Jason says, “ and this serves as a demo unit, if you don’t count the booking area,” which is a counter and office nook placed at what would ordinarily be a living area window. “We plan to open the excursion business July 4th weekend,” he says. “And we can comfortably handle four or five tours a day.”
“Construction reminds me,” Jason says. “Come on back up to the workshop. I remembered something I want to show you.
Back we go. Jason reaches onto a shelf and hands me a panel of what at first seems to be a sort of translucent Styrofoam with a curious, honeycomb-like pattern running through it.
“This is Plascore,” he says. “It’s great for buoyancy. It’s lightweight and really, really strong. Once we get the planking done” — he indicates the partially finished hull in the corner —“we’ll sheathe everything in this. Then we’ll laminate it with fiberglass and Kevlar and paint the whole hull with Linex. Between the way we finish the boat and the initial Rogue River design with the flat amidships, we’ll have a craft that’s lightweight and really durable, besides being super-stable. That’s important in a boat anytime, but particularly when you’re going to be carrying passengers who may never have set foot in a rowboat before.”
“The boats, the tiny houses, the other green construction that we do, they’re all part of Will’s and my vision of ourselves,” Jason says. “We consider ourselves creative builders, so we’re always looking at new ideas, and new ways to enhance the ideas we’ve already got going.”
“For instance,” he says, indicating a small-bodied, long-shanked marine motor stowed in back of the finished Rogue boat, “this is a Torqeedo motor. They’re made in Germany. We got very interested in them a few years ago because of the concept behind how they’re made. See, they use lithium batteries and they’ve developed this brushless motor that uses rare earth magnets. All very ‘green’ technology. And they’re quiet. Perfect for use on our cruises when you need just a little extra power, and for fly fishing, when quiet is just as important.”
This process of discovery and adaptation has been a hallmark of the 15-year-long collaboration between Jason and Will (who was out of town at the time of this interview). The two founded Evert & Brownlee, Inc., “your basic construction contracting company, but with a focus from the beginning on ecology-friendly design” in 2005.[quote float=”center”]The boatbuilding venture, Jason says, was not a spontaneous spinoff, but was instead the product of several years’ worth of research and prototype development.[/quote]
The boatworks, the river excursions, the tiny model house doubling as a ticket office – it’s all a well laid out and obviously carefully planned setup. But one thing seems problematic: Does it concern the partners that their operation is in the middle of a floodplain?
Jason Brownlee smiles. “We build boats,” he says.
View the article, click to open in fullscreen…