Lost art rediscovered in the heart of Cortez

Cortez, Fla. – If these old boats could talk, they would tell of journeys to foreign nations, through storms and calm seas, of fish, swamps and good times and bad.

The boats sitting at the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage’s Boatworks, 4404 116th St. W., Cortez, have been given a second life, and Rick Stewart to tell their stories.

Stewart, manager of Boatworks, specializes in wooden boats, but he, and a group of loyal volunteers that routinely joins him, renovate all types of boats donated to FISH.

boatworks capisina jg 082014
Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage’s Boatworks manager, Rick Stewart, places a fresh cypress plank on the historic Cuban fishing boat, the Campesina at FISH Boatworks Aug. 13.


“This is art. Wooden boat building isn’t mechanical, it’s an art,” said Stewart.

The boats coming into FISH’s Boatworks are donated, often historical, and are restored to be sold to benefit FISH.

FISH is a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Cortez Village’s maritime culture and history, as well as overseeing the FISH Preserve in Cortez.

Stewart said he has nearly 50 volunteers throughout the year and, in the off-season, he has eight steady volunteers.

“This place is a beehive in October. I need summer volunteers,” Stewart said.

The steady volunteers, Stewart said, are old-timers that have valuable skills relating to the vanishing art of wooden boat building and, they also have abundant knowledge of the area to impart to newcomers.

Stewart is actively seeking younger volunteers with any skill level to come to Boatworks 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, to learn the vanishing trade.

Stewart also is offering classes on the history and trade Saturday mornings at 9 a.m.

“I’m giving back to what I’ve learned in my younger years. I want young people to be involved in craftsmanship. They’re so involved in technology that’s coming out in rapid succession. This industry is about slowing down and handcrafting things and learning skills from elders,” Stewart said.

boatworks raffle jg 082014
A skeletal structure made of African mahogany will be a finished boat by February. It will be raffle prize at the 2015 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival in Cortez.

Inside the shop, vessels in various stages of restoration take up all but the little space left for walkways, including the skeleton for coquina-rowing skiff.

The skiff, which is only framework, will be a finished boat by February, and will be a raffle prize at the 2015 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. Stewart builds or renovates a boat for the raffle at the festival every year.

The coquina-rowing skiff is made of African mahogany, replacing pressure-treated pine, which Stewart said is know as Cortez teak. Stewart plans to finish the wooden boat with varnish.

“This will really be beautiful when it’s finished,” he said. “It’s like a Harley-Davidson Sportster. It has those lines.”

Seventy-five percent of the materials used in the Little Coquina are recycled from other vessels on the property.

Raised on blocks on the outside porch is an old Cuban fishing boat, the Campesina which, translated means “peasant girl.” Stewart said the fishing boat has sat in the Boatworks yard for years, and with an increase in the Boatworks budget from FISH, he is finally able to restore it.

The previous year’s budget allotted Boatworks $6,000, and Stewart said the amount left him and his crew scraping by, and pushed major restorations off to the future.

The current year’s budget doubled to $12,000, allowing him to purchase lumber and tools necessary for larger projects, such as the Campesina.

“I love this boat. I only have two photos to work from to restore it, so it’ll never be historically accurate,” said Stewart.

But, like a skilled surgeon, Stewart can diagnose the needs of the vessel as he dissects it, and speculate about its history.

“This boat was nailed together, which is not typical. It was crudely built, but the skills used to build it are top notch, including the design. That tells me there was probably a lack of resources,” he said.

boatworks ana mendez jg 082014
The Ana Mendez, a reproduction of a longboat circa 1539, owned by De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton is undergoing renovations at FISH Boatworks.

Next to the Campesina sits a celebrity, the Ana Mendez. The Ana Mendez is government-owned, belonging to De Soto National Memorial. The reproduction longboat, circa 1539, is used in De Soto Memorial’s annual reenactment of the Spanish conquistador’s arrival to Florida’s shoreline.

The longboat also is used in parades and displays. Stewart said the Ana Mendez was originally made at Boatworks, and is on deadline to be used in a fall festival event at the end October at the park.

“This project is helping us build a relationship with De Soto Memorial. I feel like I’m doing a good thing because it’s for all the people,” Stewart said. “It’s one charitable organization helping another.”

The Boatworks building, housed on the northwest corner of the FISH preserve, also houses other celebrity boats including the Esperanza and the Sally Adams. Both historic vessels will be on display at Nov. 1 at the Sarasota Bay Water Festival at Ken Thompson Park in Sarasota and the Nov. 15 at the Florida Maritime Museum’s Boatyard Bash.

This article was originally published in The Islander, August 20, 2014.