On Christmas Eve this year, legendary Chesapeake Bay boatbuilder John Collamore III will turn 80. I was lucky enough to have a number of anecdotal encounters with the man, before I even knew who he was. Both literally and figuratively. Once formally introduced I could tell I was among greatness, but the span of John’s career was far beyond the few months I was laid up in any boatyards or harbors in Deltaville, VA, on the Lower Bay in 2020.
The Virginia tidewater town is home to John, also known as “Chip,” Collamore, his son (John Collamore IV), and what was once the boat-building corporation Hulls Unlimited Inc., located in the eastern part of the not-incorporated town. It was long sold by the time I showed up working on boats. The boat-building yard was spearheaded by John III, 26 at the time, and his father (John H.) since deceased, at the height of the fiberglass boatbuilding boom in the 1960s. The company’s focus was on traditional Chesapeake Bay deadrise workboats.
With the help of many dedicated employees, Hulls Unlimited Inc. built over 100 fiberglass commercial work boats ranging in size from 26 to 65 feet. John (the III, Chip, whatever you want to call him, just don’t call him late for dinner, he’s that kind of guy) has been quoted in the Washington Post, featured in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, Professional Boatbuilder Magazine, and more. Not to mention the dozens of boats still working and floating today, that the man designed and built.
He is also co-founder of the Colonial Seaport Foundation, a nonprofit historical boatbuilding organization, with his son. His legacy continues to grow. Long since retired, the gates to the boat building yard have since closed. Having worked on boats of all kinds all over the Bay and East Coast for a lifetime, Collamore was still a community emblem.
I’d heard the name from my friend and yacht-brokerage owner, Melanie Neale. She had told her buddy, John Collamore IV, to help me if he could in some of my boat re-building projects, while I was in town. His dad was, after all, a grandfather of boatbuilding.
But we had all yet to meet while I was wandering around a second-hand, marine consignment store on General Puller Highway, the main drag through Deltaville. I had a canvas bucket-hat I’d put down accidentally somewhere in the store when I overheard two old men at the counter. One asking how much for the hat, the other saying it wasn’t for sale.
It was my hat. When he left, the man who owned the store and sold me my subsequent bronze parts said, “That was John Collamore.” That’s when I realized there was more than one. Eventually I met both father and son formally. They loaded me up with gallons of epoxy, firewood for my boat’s interior cabin wood-burning stove, and general encouragement. One time, they came to visit me in the boat yard. I was doing a traditional rigging-bonanza that included pine tar. John Collamore III grabbed the can and took a big whiff. Clearly, it brought him back to the days rigging galvanized steel on working boats or historic replicas.
“Pine tar mhmmm,” he said with a slurping sound as I muddled about my boatyard business, snickering. Nothing but good clean fun with those two. When it came to the waterline/bottom job I’d just done, he also had something constructive to say.
“Jeez, Emily, we could have given you some tape for the waterline,” he said with vigor, practically slapping me on the back.
“Dad’s a hoot,” John IV would say with a huge smile and slight eye roll. “That’s Dad.”
Originally from the Northeast, Collamore is an English name. His son, John IV, has a thick southern drawl and is clad with a police officer’s badge. Compared to his zany father, they are almost quite the opposite. Except when they’re both dressed in pirate garb for nonprofit events. And they can always be found side-by-side, in any spare moment. These days, John IV is a marine police officer on the Bay. Soon-to-be retired, with his captain’s credentials, he plans to work full-time on the Collamore’s Colonial Seaport Foundation.
Last time I ended up on a boat being rebuilt in Deltaville, I didn’t see the Collamores, but I thought of them. It turned out John III had recently suffered a stroke. Luckily, he recovered. I thought of them and how it was my third time back in town. A hat trick if you will. My third time back in town, on a third boat. I wished then I’d given John “Chip” Collamore that old hat of mine…
By Emily Greenberg