Like his ancestors, Willie Dereef makes his living with a skilled pair of hands. Dereef is a master boatbuilder, and his boatbuilding business is part hobby, part science and part art. It is also all about preserving a culture that is still a way of life for many on the South Carolina coast. Most Gullah men fed their families with the sea and along the coastal rivers where they fished and harvested rice. Dereef hand-crafts boats in much the same fashion as those ancestors, who brought the tradition from West Africa.
In 2005, the year in which Dereef celebrated his 80th birthday, he is still building. He began his craft when he was just 9 years old. Dereef’s uncle, Abram Joseph, was one of the best boat builders in the area during a time when boatbuilders were still common. Joseph, who was born in 1870, would take prime pieces of cypress and a handful of tools and build a couple of boats a day. Dereef became part of a trio — Joseph and his son Richard Joseph — who would build up to five boats a day. At 80, Dereef says he can still build a boat in a day. Though still functional, the boats are now more art pieces than they are a necessity of coastal life. Dereef has had one of his boats displayed at the S.C. State Museum, symbolic of a Gullah culture that still lives through his handiwork.