A tiny wooden craft skimmed through the emerald water of the Intracoastal Waterway Dec. 1, its sail billowing in the unseasonably warm breeze. Pat Plunkett perched in the stern of the boat, one hand on the rudder, while his father, Butch Plunkett, sat closer to the bow. The stillness was broken only by the steady rhythm of waves lapping against the side of the boat and the flapping of the sail catching the wind. Butch Plunkett leaned forward, a wide grin breaking out on his face.
“There isn’t anything I’d rather be doing right now,” he said.
The voyage was made all the more sweet for father and son because it was the culmination of five weeks’ toiling in the backyard to build the boat out of poplar hardwood and pine plywood. But the full journey actually began 60 years earlier.
The year was 1954. Butch Plunkett was 13 years old and attending Camp Sea Gull in Arapahoe, N.C., for the first time. Cruising around the Neuse River in a 19-foot lightning boat with his friends, he fell in love with sailing.
“When something like that gets in your blood, you can’t leave it,” Plunkett said.
He discovered a natural talent for repairing boats several years later when his father’s 21-foot craft was rammed by another boater. Plunkett was only 16 years old and unschooled in woodworking, but he successfully repaired the extensive damage.
Although he pursued a meandering career path, first in the Marine Corps and then as the owner of an engineering business, he continued dabbling in carpentry over the years, building furniture for various family members and friends. He indulged his love of sailing by taking Pat, wife Maggie and daughters Melin and Michelle, out on their 30-foot sailboat, the SkyBird.
Around that time, Butch and son Pat built their first boat, a 7-foot 6-inch craft to transport them back and forth from their sailboat. They built it merely out of necessity — the SkyBird needed a dinghy — but it planted a seed of inspiration.
After losing his engineering business in the recession of 1991, Butch Plunkett began working as an environmental engineer. The job brought him and his family to Wilmington.
Then tragedy struck as Maggie Plunkett was diagnosed with lung cancer. Butch Plunkett retired to take care of his wife. She died in 2009.
Several years went by. In 2013, Pat Plunkett, who by then was equally skilled in woodworking, moved in with his father. They decided to dust off the plans for the small dinghy they built years earlier. They began sketching a basic blueprint, using a computer-aided-design (CAD) drawing program to make tweaks here and there.
They added oars reminiscent of a typical wooden dinghy. They added a sail, because they no longer had a sailboat. They added a motor. After weeks of modifications, they had finalized plans for a unique, Swiss-army knife of a boat.
Pat Plunkett created an 18-inch model to test the feasibility of the design. Still, he said there was a fair amount of apprehension when, after five weeks of construction, they pushed the full-size boat into the water.
“There was a moment of, ‘OK, is it gonna move?’” he said.
It moved. In fact, when the breeze caught the sail, the tiny craft charged through the water, looking like the ocean’s smallest pirate ship.
“They actually run a pirate regatta down in Southport and we think we’ll go join them [next year],” Butch Plunkett said with a laugh. “Maybe make us a Styrofoam cannon and put a potato gun in it.”
Between the two of them, Butch and Pat Plunkett have built countless wooden creations over the years. The process of combining their favorite hobbies, sailing and woodworking, to build a boat together spurred a new dream of acquiring a shop and starting a boatbuilding business. But this first boat would always be special to them, they agreed, both as the realization of a lifelong passion and the start of a new journey.
Father and son now have to complete the final step of the boatbuilding process — naming and christening the boat, a process that involves gathering with friends and family members and toasting to safe voyages.
Butch said in the next few weeks he and his son plan to mark the vessel with the only name befitting such a meaningful endeavor — Maggie.