Skip Jones flips through a photo album of before-and-after pic-tures of the shrimp boat he has spent the past four years resurrecting. The underlying theme of the record is his insistence that all restorations stay true to the watercraft’s original design; in one “before” photograph, he’s used a computer program to superimpose a mast that has been absent some 20 years. These kinds of details are important to Jones, who builds homes for a living. Over a medium-rare hamburger at Big Daddy’s Grill on Fish River, he tells me the boat’s history through inconsecutive chapters, like an audiobook on shuffle.
Chapter 1: An Old Friend
Jones still wonders how the man knew. Maybe it was the way the boat’s hull rolled in that unforgettable Mississippi Sound. Maybe it was those sensuous lines, explanation enough for why boats are discussed using feminine pronouns. For whatever reason, the man pulled his car to the side of U.S. Highway 90, along Biloxi’s weather-worn coast, and staggered down the crowded pier to where Jones, the boat’s owner, stood. When Jones was done regaling attendees of the Gulf Coast Wooden Boat Show with as much of the story as he knew, the man approached.
“Has this boat ever been to Mississippi before?” he asked. Jones answered that it was indeed built on the shores of Back Bay Biloxi, nearly visible from where the two were standing. The man stared at the boat. “Was it ever named Dolores Catherine?”
Though the transom was hidden from sight against the wharf, it still bore the name Dolores Catherine in bold, blue cursive. The man explained to Jones that the boat was a familiar sight from his childhood in Pass Christian, Miss., where he grew up with the grandson of the original owner. He remembered the boy’s mother was called Dolores and that she had a sister named Catherine. And, to Jones’ great satisfaction, he remembered that boat.
“For somebody who, two and a half years before, thought surely I’d ruined this boat, to have this old Mississippi fisherman recognize it validated the whole thing, ” Jones says.
Chapter 2: Must Float
Five years earlier, Jones, a Mobile native and current Fairhopian, began to feel an itch that infects Bay-area residents like sand fleas. He soon set his mind on buying a boat. He had owned a wooden sailboat, as well as the “typical Mobile Stauter-built skiff, ” but was ready for something different. After recruiting a friend to join his cause, the men began searching.
“We were in our 60s, so we thought we better get a boat we can use and not have to put a lot of work into, ” Jones, now 69, says. The classified ads in local papers and on the Internet offered the same, everyday models. “We wanted something that was a little more distinctive — or we thought we did.”
One day, Jones’ phone rang. A friend had seen a rundown vessel that met a few of his criteria — most notably, it was wooden and floated. The suggestion may have been “tongue-in-cheek, ” Jones admits, but it led to a blind date. From there, it was love at first sight. Kind of.
“It was really an interesting-looking boat, ” he recalls, “especially from the truck.” Further investigation revealed a sturdy hull encasing a functioning but otherwise decrepit ship. A quick spin with the owner was all the convincing Jones needed. “We got back in the truck, and I said, ‘I’m fascinated by that boat.’” He let his less-than-fascinated partner out of the venture, and returned to Nolte Creek the next day to purchase the Dolores Catherine. “At that point, even though I knew it needed a lot of work, I didn’t know what that was going to mean, ” he says. But for only $2, 500, Jones figured the bones of the 40-foot 1936 Biloxi lugger were worth salvaging.
The boat’s pedigree was the final determining factor. It had been built on Biloxi’s Back Bay at the Covacevich Shipyard, a name Jones was familiar with. “They were a Croatian family that moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the late 19th century and started building boats in 1896, and they’re considered to be the most artistic of the work-boat designers, ” he says. “So that was another element of the decision: ignorance, price, heritage of the boat.”
Chapter 3: A New Friend
Oblivious to the intricacies (as well as the grander details) of shipbuilding, Jones was effectively up the creek with a boat too large to paddle. Again, Jones’ phone rang with a solution. A friend advised him to contact boat-building expert Mike Broussard. He did, and Broussard soon visited the Marlowe Boat Basin, where the vessel still rests.
“He immediately said, ‘I know this boat, ’” Jones recalls. As it turned out, Broussard’s grandmother had known the shipbuilder’s wife. Broussard agreed to help Jones, to introduce new tricks to an aging dog. First, he advised that everything on the deck had to go: wheelhouse, floor, ice hole, everything. “Anybody with good sense would’ve already figured that out, ” Jones says. “I guess maybe I didn’t want to.”
Jones followed Broussard’s close consultation that day and most days for the next three and a half years, building a friendship while cautiously breaking down the boat – save from the waterline, down — and rebuilding a sparkling new interior and exterior. When he was almost done, he sent his mentor a picture. “Tony Jack Covacevich couldn’t have done it any better, ” Broussard responded.
During the restoration process, Jones stripped the boat down to the bare bones and built it back up into a beauty. Now that the work is complete, Jones can enjoy the benefits of his labors out on the open waters.
Chapter 4: A Boat’s Life
The man at the boat show didn’t as much hand Jones a puzzle piece as direct him toward the long-sought puzzle his pieces matched.
“I was even worse at genealogy than I was at boatbuilding, ” he laughs. Through research stemming from that encounter, Jones learned the original owner of the Dolores Catherine was a Mississippi Coast fisherman, said to be more fervent than his contemporaries, who caught shrimp, oysters and other seafood on the boat for five decades, until his death. After a few additional years in the family, the rickety ship floated down I-10 like a plastic grocery bag, through a handful of owners until the day Jones steered it from Nolte Creek through Weeks Bay and up a shallow stream into the Marlowe Boat Basin.
There it is guarded by a man named Carl, saltier than olive brine, who shares a nearby trailer with his sunbathing cat. As we shake hands, Carl matter-of-factly warns me what he would’ve done if I had arrived without Jones.
Chapter 5: Staying Active
But maybe it all comes back to the itch. “Boats tend to hook people. Even people from Iowa are fascinated by boats, ” Jones says.
Standing behind the wheel as he navigates Magnolia River, Jones lists the few differences between the boat he has built and the one Covacevich constructed in 1936. Most of the measurements he recites are to the inch. The amenities are all there — the deck has a hot-water shower, and the head boasts a state-of-the-art nuclear sanitary system — yet the Dolores Catherine maintains a collected grace that modern-day yachts cannot.
As for Jones, he credits the boat with teaching him patience and how to appreciate life’s simplicity. He also says the finished product has made him feel more youthful than when he began, and it sounds as though he recognizes parallels between an aging boat and an aging man.
“To have taken a boat that’s been active for 75 years and give it a little more life, ” he says, trailing off.
He shrugs. “Well, it’s better than other ways I can think of getting a boat.”