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Great South Bay clam boat returns home

Jesse Eilbeck, age 38 of Babylon, in the

Jesse Eilbeck, age 38 of Babylon, in the cabin of his recently restored boat, Native Son, heading out to the Great South Bay. (June 10, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

The two men who might have known how the tired old clam boat made its way from the Great South Bay to Florida's Gulf Coast are dead.

Clarkson "Ollie" Richter built it and about 50 more in Babylon Village between 1962 and 1991, first in his garage, then in a shipyard off Fire Island Avenue. Stephen Eilbeck, a onetime clammer who moved to Florida after the Great South Bay's industry collapsed, got it as a gift down there sometime in the late 1990s.

Their survivors include Jesse Eilbeck, who inherited the boat from his uncle, hauled it north and finished refurbishing it this spring; and Doris and Sean Richter, the builder's widow and son.

"He didn't have a lot," Eilbeck said of his uncle, who died in 2010. "This was one of the only material possessions he held close."

Eilbeck, 38, of Babylon Village, teaches wood shop at Islip High School. He grew up clamming and working charters out of Captree.

Both his dad and his Uncle Steve clammed during the boom years of the '60s and into the collapse of the early '80s, he said, and when his uncle could no longer make a living on the bay, he took a public works job in a small Florida town.

Stephen Eilbeck took ownership of the clam boat there but never worked the water again. "He mostly just tooled around in it," Eilbeck said. "He missed the bay."

It was a 32-foot garvey made of fiberglass laid over oak and Douglas fir; shallow-drafted and boxy above the waterline but sleek beneath, low-slung and without gunwales, to make it easier for a man tonging clams to haul them aboard.

The younger Eilbeck recognized the make and knew the maker. "Everybody knew Ollie," he said. "He was like a local hero . . . He built real nice boats. None of us could afford them."

When Eilbeck took possession of this one it was "rough," he said: no rails or windows, the cabin rotted out, the carburetor shot, a thick beard of barnacles on the hull, and fiberglass patchily exposed where the paint had chipped.

He sanded and repainted the bottom, bent oak for new rails, laid new fiberglass, ripped out rot in the cabin and replaced it with milled hardwood.

He and his wife had a son on the way and no extra money, so he did most of the work himself, enlisting a mechanic friend for some of the engine work. It took 10 months and more than 600 man-hours, he estimated.

When it was done, he chose a name, Native Son, that reminds him of the work his uncle and father did. He plans on clamming, too, this year.

"I want to always keep that part of my life," he said. "It's part of my family's heritage."

The Richters share that heritage. Doris Richter still lives in the waterfront house where her husband started building boats. She cut the fiberglass on most of them. Richter boats can still be found at Blue Point and out East, she said, and farther afield in Rhode Island, Louisiana, the Bahamas, and, yes, even Florida.

She and her son, Sean, a tug captain, have seen Native Son moored off Shore Road in the village, cleaned, painted, refreshed.

The work that Eilbeck did makes Sean think of his dad's life's work. "It makes you proud that they should care and want to acknowledge that," he said.

Life of the "Native Son"

1977 Put to sea

Late 1990s Given to Stephen Eilbeck

2010 Given to Jesse Eilbeck

2011 Rebuild complete

2012 Finishing touches added

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