Sea State

BY Jules Norwood

Home-grown industry goes global

On a maritime night watch the vastness of the sea sets in. It’s hard to tell where the hemisphere of stars meets the inky depths of the heaving ocean. There is only the boat and its crew on which to rely. The demands of the sea remain unchanged; it may be tranquil one day and rage the next and the seafarer must always be prepared and confident in his craft.

Its Outer Banks thrust like a bow into the currents of the Atlantic Ocean North Carolina has long been home to boatmen eking out a living from the sea’s harvest the winds and waves shaping and influencing the boats built to carry them to sea and home again.

Those early boat builders crafted out of necessity — relying on boats for their livelihood. These boats were built to face the worst conditions as the waters off the coast are known for good reason as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. That reputation for strength and quality has paid off as the state’s boat building has grown from a backyard necessity into a $500 million to $600 million industry. Buoyed by craftsmen from the state’s furniture industry and a supply chain developed over decades yachts built here from motor yachts and sport fishing boats to cruising sail and cat boats are now known as some of the best in the world. The state’s yacht builders serve a global clientele with price tags as high as $11 million to $12 million. 

The Ties

A web of connections links today’s builders and those credited with launching the industry decades ago. The son of the founder of the state’s biggest yacht builder Hatteras Yachts owns a yard in High Point that is currently building its own boat for the first time.

Likewise Gunboat an internationally acclaimed builder of high-performance catamaran sailboats chose North Carolina as a production site. Gunboat moved into the facility in Wanchese that formerly housed the boat works of Buddy Davis who is credited with putting North Carolina sport fishing boats on the map. Another forefather of the sport fishing boat industry Omie Tillett influenced and lent a helping hand with the early boats of another of today’s builders Randy Ramsey of Jarrett Bay in Beaufort.

Early on boats were built on and near Roanoke Island for sport fishing off of the Outer Banks and their designs were honed through trial and error. These boats had to navigate the chop of Oregon Inlet and cut through the ocean swell to reach the Gulf Stream where marlin and other game fish were most likely to be found. Warren O’Neal designed a deep-V fishing boat for himself in 1959 and those who learned from him including Omie Tillett Sheldon Midgett and Buddy Davis began building boats in earnest in the ’60s.

Hatteras got its start in an unlikely place — hours from the ocean. Its boats were built to fish. The first Hatteras a 41-footer named Knit Wits was designed in 1959 and launched in Morehead in 1960 by Willis Slane. He figured the reduced overhead from not being on waterfront property along with the ready availability of talented woodworking craftsmen from the furniture industry would offset the cost of transporting finished boats to the coast says his son Tom Slane.

“They had to take out a wall to get that first boat out of the building ” Slane says. “My mom was there in Morehead to break the bottle of champagne over the bow.”

Slane was only 10 when his father passed and Hatteras Yachts was sold soon after. But years later after he restored an older Hatteras for himself another owner of the same model was impressed enough to order his own restoration. Hatteras took note as well and featured Slane’s projects in its owner newsletter which generated more restoration work.

Through 30 years of rebuilding classic yachts designing and building a boat of his own was always a thought in the back of his mind and today Slane Marine is nearing completion of hull No. 1 of the Slane 62-foot convertible under construction. The company is using space in the High Point facilities used by Hatteras until 1998 when it consolidated its operations into its New Bern headquarters.

Randy Ramsey has a similar story about the origins of his business. He was charter fishing in the 1980s when he set out to build a boat of his own.

“I always knew that I wanted to do something different something a little more stylish and what I thought would be better in the ocean for charter fishing ” he says. “I turned to a guy I’d fished with named Omie Tillett. … Like me he was a charter captain who made his living on the ocean and he was always trying to change his boats and make them a little better. So when I got ready to build my first boat I reached out to him to try to build a boat that was very similar to the one that he was running. We built Sensation which was our first boat and is still operating on the Morehead City waterfront charter fishing every day. He helped us and made a big impact on how our boats are.”

While building Sensation another charter captain asked Ramsey to build a second boat. He agreed to work on that next boat — when he wasn’t fishing. Those two boats led to more orders and by the early ’90s he says he had to drop charter fishing and focus full-time on boat building to keep up. Today Jarrett Bay Boatworks services about 1 000 boats per year at its boatyard and has four large sport fishing boats under construction including a 90-foot battlewagon with six staterooms and five heads.

When Gunboat founder and CEO Peter Johnstone was looking for a place to build boats in the United States North Carolina’s central location on the Atlantic coast the availability of facilities suitable for large yacht production and a labor force with a history of boat building and woodworking were major factors in the company’s move to Wanchese in 2012. The state provided an incentive package that included rehabilitation of the former Buddy Davis Boatworks and the construction of an access ramp wide enough to accommodate the company’s catamarans.

Gunboat’s lightweight high-speed catamaran sailboats were first built in South Africa and later China and Holland but the nine boats under construction in Wanchese make it the primary facility now employing 125 workers and Johnstone expects it to expand more in the next few years.

“We are so grateful for the warm welcome that we have gotten from everyone whether it’s neighbors or other builders around us the various distributors suppliers and subcontractors ” Johnstone says. “North Carolina is really special; it has terrific people.”

Steve Brodie president of Pacific Seacraft Yachts in Washington NC says North Carolina’s woodworkers are world class.

“We have some incredibly talented woodworkers here some with long boat building backgrounds some with custom furniture backgrounds who bring some unique and varied skillsets on the woodworking side ” Brodie says. 

The Craft

While today’s builders share ties to the state’s boating and boat building history the yachts and their construction cover a wide range of styles purposes materials and techniques.

Perhaps the most traditional-looking yachts being built in North Carolina are those of Pacific Seacraft a company that relocated from California after it was purchased by Steve Brodie and his father Reid in 2007. It offers a range of cruising sailboats from 31 to 44 feet and has just introduced a new 61-footer.

All of the Pacific Seacraft yachts save for the 61 have solid fiberglass hulls laid up by hand inside a mold. The outer finish called gelcoat is laid in the mold first followed by the fiberglass cloth and then resin is poured over and worked into the cloth until it is saturated. A liner laid up in a separate mold by the same process is bonded to the hull and provides additional strength as well as the basic structure of the interior. The third major component the deck is attached after much of the interior and systems have been installed.

“Everything is heavily built ” Brodie says. “These are boats that oftentimes are crossing oceans. People are entrusting the lives of their families to their boats and that’s something we take very seriously. The bonding process of that liner to the hull is a major component; it makes for a unitized structural gridwork that makes the boats very stiff very silent. We hear a lot from people coming out of other boats that they can’t believe how quiet our boats are in a seaway.”

A newer technique called infusion provides a more controlled means of saturating fiberglass cloth and other laminate materials with resin. Rather than applying resin by hand the cloth is covered with a vacuum bag and resin is drawn into the material through a network of tubes using the negative pressure of the vacuum. The process can produce lighter-weight structures and reduce waste but extra care must be taken to prevent voids that would weaken the structure. Each manufacturer uses infusion for some parts in the build and some use it for the hull itself.

The Pacific Seacraft 61’s cored hull is molded using a combination of hand layup and infusion. Fiberglass infusion is used for the hulls of most Hatteras yachts and the Slane 62 as well.

“All of the hulls are infused up to about 80 feet along with all of our decks and bulkheads ” says Bruce Angel vice president of product development and engineering at Hatteras. “We’ve always been known for our durability and our safety — we’ve never been known for speed. But with fuel prices as they are and the competition adopting more of the lightweight structures we’re not going to be able to rest on our laurels.”

Slane Marine is using the infusion process as one part of a concerted effort to keep its boats as light as possible.

“We are making use of newer fabrics and resins that make that process even more efficient ” says Thomas Slane Jr. who works alongside his father at Slane Marine. “Our 62 is designed to be a highly engineered sport fishing boat with no weight that’s not needed.”

With those savings along with a lightweight and efficient propulsion system they expect the boat to weigh considerably less than comparably sized competitors.

“With that weight savings you don’t need as much power to achieve the same speeds ” Slane Jr says. “And with less power there’s less fuel burn. With the cost of fuel and the amount that’s burned during each tournament that adds up to a significant savings over the life of the boat.”

Gunboat also molds its hulls using infusion but replaced fiberglass with carbon fiber with a foam core resulting in a structure that’s extremely strong and lightweight. The epoxy-carbon infusion technique requires specialized training of the workforce which the state provided through the College of the Albemarle as part of its incentive package.

Jarrett Bay is using carbon fiber and cored composites extensively to reduce weight in its structures especially in its 90-footer but the hulls are built using a more traditional method known as cold molding.

“They’re built as wooden hulls and then they’re fiber-glassed inside and out. So technically it becomes a fiberglass boat with a wooden core ” Ramsey says. “One of the reasons for usingwood is noise abatement. The customers don’t want a boat that’s loud or like a kettledrum under way or even at the dock. We weighed the opportunities available to us with different materials and we found that in the end wood was going to give us the best noise abatement and the best strength. However a lot of other components in the boat like bulkheads stringers decks cabins and bridge components will use carbon or closed-cell foam or both.”

The boats differ inside as well with interiors ranging from the craft-built teak and mahogany cabinetry of Pacific Seacraft to the computer designed and CNC router-cut components of Hatteras and the lightweight high-tech materials of Gunboat. Despite the differences all of these yachts feature a high level of fit and finish and allow for significant owner customization of surfaces fabrics and even the layout itself.

Global Market

One trend that stands out is yachts are getting bigger and each builder has larger offerings than ever before. As customers demand more accommodations more speed and more range hull lengths that were once unheard of are becoming more common. It wasn’t long ago that the ideal length for a cruising sailboat motor yacht or sport fisher was considered to be in the mid-30-foot range. Many of today’s customers are looking for boats in the mid-40s and upwards.

Jarrett Bay’s 90 is its biggest build yet and Hatteras has sold four of its 100-foot raised pilothouse motor yachts — two have been delivered and two are under construction. Pacific Seacraft’s 61 marks a 17-foot leap from its previous offerings and Gunboat plans to add a 72 and a 77 to the 55-foot model built in Wanchese.

“When I was charter boating back in the ’80s people used to say the ideal sized boat … was a 37-footer ” Ramsey says. “You could get around it fish better handle better and anything larger than that was difficult. And at that point that probably was the case. But now we’re seeing boats that with the advent of additional horsepower are very efficient and handle really well. At that point there were 250-horsepower gasoline motors in the boats and now we’re seeing boats with 2 600 horsepower per side. So that along with the bow thrusters make the boats very nimble in larger sizes. Having boats in those larger sizes makes the world smaller and allows us to go and do really cool stuff.”

During and following the recession Brodie adds the larger boats have been the market segment that still showed growth which led Pacific Seacraft to expand its size range upward.

With longer hulls better navigation technology and weather forecasting and more reliable propulsion systems yachts are traveling farther and customers from around the globe are seeking out those built in North Carolina.

Angel says Hatteras recently delivered a boat to Singapore and had several models in a boat show in Dubai.

“When you go to marinas you just see numerous examples of the past ” Angel says. “You see 53 motor yachts you see the 90 convertible. I got to see the 125-foot triple screw boat that we built. Our exposure is worldwide — we’ve got lots of boats in Australia Japan and the Mediterranean. It’s a humbling experience and it makes you very proud to see these products that are out there and still floating.”

Pacific Seacraft yachts have a reputation as global voyagers and many have crossed oceans and circumnavigated. Some have remained in far-flung locales or been sold to customers there in the first place. The company offers refit services as well as new builds at its Washington factory and owners from as far away as Venezuela and Hong Kong have sent their boats in for restoration Brodie says.

Gunboat’s catamarans too are built with circumnavigation in mind. Johnstone reports about 35 percent of his customers are from Europe and 55 percent from the northeast United States. Most migrate toward the Caribbean in the winter and closer to home in the summer.

With yachts built in North Carolina floating in ports around the world the state’s boat builders have a strong legacy to build upon and a high bar for which to strive. To continue to survive they will have to continue to adapt and innovate; seeking ever more efficient designs systems and construction techniques as the level of competition constantly rises. Above all else they must build boats that can withstand the whims of the cruelest mistress the sea.