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The storm was headed straight for Oriental, and my mom was scared. She was talking to me by phone from her office at Sailcraft Service, the boatyard and marina that

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The storm was headed straight for Oriental, and my mom was scared. She was talking to me by phone from her office at Sailcraft Service, the boatyard and marina that

The storm was headed straight for Oriental, and my mom was scared. She was talking to me by phone from her office at Sailcraft Service, the boatyard and marina that she owns with my stepfather, Mike. The skies were clear that day, giving a false sense of security to the boating towns that dot the North Carolina coast. Still, my parents were preparing for the worst. The tropical storm that had developed southeast of Bermuda earlier that September had now reached hurricane status.

Mom looked out the window to see Mike driving their 35-ton travel lift — a vehicle with a crane that’s used to raise vessels out of the water — from its usual spot in the boatyard and out onto Lupton Drive. The lift inched its way down the street to the Baptist church, where the higher ground made it less likely that the vehicle would be subjected to flood damage. It had seen more action than normal that week: The Sailcraft team had used the lift to haul about 40 boats out of the water, filling up the yard as much as they could.

I was sitting in a pub nearly 4,000 miles away in London, where I was spending a college semester studying abroad. One of the TVs above the bar showed video clips of boarded-up businesses and empty Harris Teeter shelves. I didn’t catch where the correspondent was reporting from, but I knew that my family was somewhere nearby, bracing for a hurricane that would pull at the roots that they’d just put down in North Carolina.

The author was studying abroad, watching helplessly as maps tracked Hurricane Florence’s movement toward the North Carolina coast, where her parents had just bought a marina. photograph by NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

Only five months earlier, they’d packed up their lives in New Jersey and taken a chance on a marina in this little boating town that none of us had ever heard of. They had no friends there. They’d never lived south of Monmouth County. They’d never heard of a Piggly Wiggly. All they knew was that they needed a change. They wanted to build something together that they could be proud of. Maybe Hurricane Florence was just some cruel introduction to life on the Carolina coast.

I wanted to ask my mom how she was feeling, but I could hear it in her voice. She was nervous. Fearful for her business, for her home, for employees who had quickly become extended family, welcoming her and Mike into their small boating community.

A few days later, on September 14, I sat in class with my phone hidden underneath my desk, my eyes glued to the satellite map showing swirls of green, blue, and orange spinning over my adopted home. I took in the numbers: About 455,000 people evacuated. Landfall at 7:15 a.m. near Wrightsville Beach. Maximum sustained winds of 90 miles per hour. Thirty inches of rainfall predicted. My mom texted me her own numbers: five feet of water in the boatyard. About $100,000 worth of damage.

My heart broke for them.

My stepfather is a proud waterman. His father owned a marina on the Navesink River in New Jersey, where Mike spent most of his time as a child. His mom was a nurse who often worked late nights, so after school, Mike went to hang out by the boats. As he got older, he took more of an interest in running the marina and began learning everything he could about boat mechanics. “Mike has been driving travel lifts since he was about 12 years old,” Mom says with a laugh. He began working at the marina in high school and soon became the head mechanic.

Mike and my mom met on a boat. She’d purchased a 21-foot Hurricane deck boat, but she didn’t know the waterways and wasn’t comfortable taking it out on her own. So she took it to the experts: the marina down the street from my childhood home in Rumson. It was a town staple, where everyone rented skiffs to go fishing on calm summer mornings. I often rode there on my bike to pick up bait for afternoon fishing at the local dock.

My mom asked the marina owner if he could give her driving lessons.

“No, but my son can,” he said.

Mike met Mom out on the dock, where her boat was waiting.

“I could tell she was nervous,” he remembers.

Jennifer Pawlikowski gives one of Sailcraft’s canine mascots, Trace, a pat on the behind. The pooch’s prodigious tongue likely could help lift a few boats out of the water. photograph by Chris Council

He took her out on the river and taught her how to navigate through the channels: red, right, return. He showed her where the sandbars would pop up at low tide, and, eventually, she became calmer and more confident behind the wheel. As they returned to the marina, Mom, with a little trepidation, pulled the hull forward, carefully aligning the boat between the pilings. She hit reverse and backed in perfectly, as if she had done it hundreds of times.

She smiled at Mike. He smiled back.

“How good was that!” she said proudly.

“That was great,” he said, “but you know this isn’t your slip, right?” He laughed as he pointed to the neighboring spot.

Immediately after he docked the boat in the correct slip, Mike asked my mom out on a date.

Ask anyone crazy enough to buy a boatyard, and they’ll tell you that you aren’t just buying a building and some tools. You’re inheriting a community, a significant part of a town’s history. This is especially true in Oriental — “The Sailing Capital of North Carolina” — a town with about 900 residents and about 3,000 boats. It can take newcomers a while to get their bearings and find their place in such a tight-knit community.

Mike and Mom had no idea when they purchased Sailcraft that it came with an unofficial member of Oriental royalty. The yard manager, George Midyette — or His Georgeness, as my mother and the sign that marks his parking spot call him — is related to the family that purchased the farmland that eventually became Oriental. His people are responsible for preserving the town’s fishing culture, and George has happily carried on the role of family historian.

Oriental was incorporated in 1899 after George’s ancestors began developing and selling the land they bought. The story goes that a Midyette named Rebecca, George’s great-aunt many times over, suggested calling the town Oriental after discovering the nameplate of a steamship that wrecked somewhere off the shores of the Outer Banks.

George, like my stepfather, grew up around boats, which is inevitable for a child raised in Oriental. He repaired his first one at around age 8 or 10, when he and his cousin Turtle came across a beat-up Louisiana Pirogue. “We found it washed up in one of these little mosquito ditches up here on Whittaker Creek and got Daddy to come help us tow it out of there,” George remembers. He and Turtle devoted their afternoons to repairing the boat, packing it full of cotton wad to make it float. “We bailed and paddled. One of us would be bailing, and the other would be paddling,” he says with a laugh. “We had a good time that summer.”

George Midyette — aka His Georgeness — disconnects the furler on the bow of a Hunter sailboat as the rest of Sailcraft’s yard workers unstep the mast. photograph by Chris Council

When his mom bought a boat and 100 crab pots, George started his own crabbing venture. “I put myself through college fishing with crab pots,” he says. After serving as his dad’s first mate, George’s official boating career began at a local fish house, where the shrimp and crab boats came in and unloaded their fresh catch. The fish house would sell to buyers from places as far away as Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland.

All of that was back when the boating community in Oriental was just beginning to branch out from its commercial fishing roots. George remembers the first man to own a sailboat in town: a retired German sea captain who’d settled here. “He was one of the last men to sail a square rigger around either of the capes, Good Hope or Cape Horn,” George says. Soon after, around 1965, a small group from Raleigh began coming to town every July to race one- or two-man sailboats, an event they called the Oriental Sailing Social. “It got pretty big,” he says. “There would be so many people here in those little boats back in those days; it was just amazing. I’d never seen anything like it before in my life, coming from a small town.”

Now, George spends upward of eight hours on the water in his canoe, winding through the creeks in which he grew up fishing and crabbing. Most of what he sees these days are sailboats, many of which he helped get ready for open waters. As the yard manager at Sailcraft, George trains employees and oversees ongoing projects. But he’s much more than just the yard manager. George helped my stepdad build the boatyard of his dreams. He taught my mom about the history and biodiversity of the creeks near Sailcraft. George has shared with my family the lore and legends of our new home.

A little more than a year after Hurricane Florence blew through town, the Sailcraft team is gathered around my grandma’s table for a big Thanksgiving dinner. When the storm blew over and the sun came out again, the boatyard crew spent about six weeks cleaning debris, launching boats, power-washing structures in the yard to kill bacteria, and bringing in damaged boats from yards that didn’t survive the hurricane. Soon, life at Sailcraft was calm again.

I reach for the stuffing and pass it to Erich, the boatyard’s 6-foot-8 service manager whose distinct voice I hear in the background every time I call my mom on the phone. He’s sitting next to my grandma, making her 5-foot-2 frame seem even smaller than usual.

Kathy Guttman, the author’s grandmother, keeps a watchful eye on Sailcraft Service from her neighboring home. She invites the boatyard workers in for treats, and cooks big dinners for those whose families live far away from Oriental. photograph by Chris Council

This isn’t the first time that the team has come to my grandma’s house, which sits just feet away from the yard. Some of them come by after work to see if she needs anything fixed around the house. Some of them come around for snacks — my grandma always has the really good stuff. “We don’t have a watchdog,” my mom likes to say. “We have a watch-grandma.”

Many of the employees at Sailcraft live far from their families, so my mom has invited them to have dinner with us this year. She can’t bear the thought of people she cares about being alone on Thanksgiving. Having recently moved here from San Francisco, Sailcraft’s rigger, Ray, brought along homemade sourdough bread. Erich and his wife, Heather, arrived with their famous corn casserole, which is more dairy than corn — the secret to its popularity. George and his wife, Gail, have hauled in fresh moonshine in a bottle that looks older than I am, with hints of barnacles around the bottom. “I call it Barnacle Bill,” George says as he passes it around.

I’m sitting across from my grandma and my mom, and when I look up at them, my heart melts. We’ve always had small Thanksgiving dinners, but sharing this day with this big group of people — people who were strangers just more than a year ago — in my grandma’s home, where water as high as the table we’re gathered around had flooded her garage, I couldn’t be more grateful to call them family.

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This story was published on May 26, 2022

Katie Kane

Katie Kane is the assistant editor at Our State.