Gray Harker has a way with boats and a way with words.
First the words. Imitating a saying of the old Harkers Island, N.C., watermen, Harker said in his best island accent:
“The wind blew sooo hard and the tide was sooo high that the sharks were eating the collards out of the garden.”
The North Carolina born and raised delivery captain comes from six generations of sailors and is as comfortable at the helm of a 70-foot ketch as he is on a trawler, motoryacht or sportfisherman.
Harker is one of those capable, unpretentious and entertaining boat guys who make our industry a little brighter place to work. More fun. Makes me glad I’m knocking around boats rather than working on someone’s taxes or teaching ninth-grade English, not to disparage accountants or teachers. (Marilyn DeMartini, who does public relations work in our industry, introduced Harker and me. She sent me some of Harker’s written musings on the correct assumption that I would enjoy them.)
“Been boating all your life?” I asked Harker.
“I was in mother’s womb when they used to go shrimping on the Neuse River in New Bern,” said Harker, who is 57 and makes his way up and down the Eastern Seaboard about a dozen times a year. “I’m constantly on boats. Pushing them around. Traveling. I never drove a submarine, but I feel I could if I was given a chance.”
His early start on the amniotic currents of the Neuse explains the boat part.
Harker’s descriptive use of language can probably be attributed to his mother, who at 85 still teaches a class in creative writing at Craven Community College in New Bern. That and the fact that the former combat engineer with the 82nd Airborne Division and his forebears have at various times lived colorful lives. His great-grandfather sailed with Commodore Dewey in the Philippines. And his grandfather was a “notorious” bootlegger in North Carolina during Prohibition.
Successful? “I think he drank up most of his profits,” Harker said with a laugh.
When we have more time, Harker promised, he’ll tell me a story about the time he had to put into Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a delivery to make emergency repairs. Didn’t hurt that he was an 82nd Airborne vet.
He also spent a year in Afghanistan in 2011 as a private contractor helping supply forward U.S. military bases along the Pakistan-Afghan border via old Mi-8 Russian-made helicopters.
You get the picture. There is no shortage of stories, and Harker tells each of them well.
In his late 20s, Harker worked the boatbuilding yards in eastern North Carolina and also built himself a Bruce Roberts-designed Adventurer 25, appropriately named Grayarea. Most of the old gaffers who taught him how to build and repair boats are gone, said Harker, who holds a 100-ton license.
He moved to Fort Lauderdale in the mid-1990s — “if you’re going to be in the boat business, it’s the place to be,” he said — but still has a house near Oriental, N.C. Harker recently finished restoring a late-1950s 13-1/2 foot runabout with tail fins and a Corvette-style dash.
In the way of the boat world, he traded a derelict sitting in his yard in Oriental for an equally rough tail fin number wasting away in the yard of another good ol’ boy. “It had three big bullfrogs living in it,” Harker said. “It was in pretty rough shape. My wife said, ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ ”
A couple of weeks ago, Harker, his wife “Mo” and her cousin from Argentina spent several hours cruising the canals of Broward Country in the refurbished but yet unnamed little boat. A bit of background. “My wife is a real girly girl,” Harker said. “Everything I love she could care less about. Fast cars, motorcycles, guns, sailboats.”
Here is the account of the voyage in Harker’s written words:
“My new boat is only 13.5 ft. It may have been substantial in 1959 but nowadays it’s a bath toy. It has been blowing the lard out of the biscuit for the last few days so our plan was to meander around the 100 miles of canals in Broward County. We went through downtown [Fort Lauderdale] then went a ways up the Middle River. Then we turned back south past Bahia Mar and Lake Silvia. It’s small enough to duck under one of the fixed bridges off Silvia and come out by Pier 66.
“All of the cruise ships were in so I asked her cousin if he’d like to see the port. As we approached the 17th St bridge I could see Port Everglades was going to be rough but I ignored the little angel tapping my ear saying don’t do this to her. We were the smallest vessel in the harbor and it was blowing the dog off the chain out of the west when we cleared the first ship.
“The pilot boats were standing by with the tugs and the ship was using its thrusters to hold itself to the dock while they shook off their lines. Between the wind and the giant whirlpools our little boat swung about madly. There’s no windshield yet so spray soaked us quickly. Mo began to squeal and pulled her hat down over her face. She had a Brazilian wrap over her shoulders with water flapping from the fringe.
“We were well out in the harbor by now and there wasn’t anything in the cockpit that wasn’t wringing wet. Every time spray broke over the bow Mo would squeal a little louder. Finally she said, ‘We have to go back!’ I said, ‘We’re already halfway now. It’s further back than it is to go on.’ I was grinning so hard occasionally I had to spit out the salt water coming through my teeth.
“I was well inside the security zone around the cruise ships. The U.S. Coast Guard, Broward Sheriff’s department and Homeland Security vessels all watched as I motored a few boat lengths away past them. In most situations they would have come right over and shook their finger at me. But I think they all realized I was no threat to anyone beside myself.
“We finally crossed the port and got inside of Dania Cutoff. I took a break in the mangroves to relieve myself and Mo wrung out her wrap. They were both grinning like a mule eating briars and agreed that THAT was exciting. As you go up the canal you see less houses and more mangroves. By the time we were halfway around the backside, Mo said, ‘There’s nothing here. It’s boring.’ I asked if she wanted to go back through the port, which she quickly declined. We made it back into the New River and headed to the landing.
“As we approached the landing I realized what I thought was Sea Tow pulling someone in was actually Florida Marine patrol. I had made sure I had everything in order for just such a situation. He eased up alongside of me and said, ‘What year is that thing?’ Then he waved and drove on off. I half expected Mo to be traumatized and never want to go back out on it. But all she could talk about was how much fun she had had. I don’t know if I could be happier. The boat made it back to the landing, my wife is happy with the boat. What more could you ask for?”