Some anglers say they dream of one day owning a Carolina boat, but what exactly do they mean by that? Often, they’re referring to a sportfisherman constructed near the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where big waves, shifting shoals and unpredictable conditions test the mettle of any vessel. A Carolina boat can cut through heavy seas and traverse nasty inlets, keep the crew dry and make good time. In short, it’s a seakindly vessel with efficiency and maneuverability, particularly while on a fish.
When people think of Carolina boats, many visualize custom builds from yards such as Jarrett Bay, Scarborough and Spencer. But Carolina boats are available in production models too, and they share some of the traits seen in custom designs, including lines that are indigenous to the region, good craftsmanship and reliable offshore hulls. Custom builders defined the Carolina boat, but production builders like the three featured here have made contributions to the genre and are evolving the concept. Here’s how.
One key element of a classic Carolina boat is “that big, flared bow that’s designed to cut through and knock down the seas you’ll find in places like Oregon Inlet,” says Joan Maxwell, president and cofounder of Regulator Marine in Edenton, North Carolina. “You see it in boats all along the Outer Banks, but it’s most pronounced in the northern banks. And it’s very distinctive.”
Maxwell says custom builders such as Omie Tillet, who founded Jarrett Bay, did a lot to draw attention to that design element, but in her mind, Buddy Davis was the first person to move this boat style toward production building. “He paved the way for many builders on the Outer Banks, including us, and his boat had quite the reputation for a great ride.”
Replicating that flare in a smaller production boat was a goal for Joan and her husband, Owen, when they started their company in 1988 from inside an old A&P grocery store. Their mission was to reinvent the center console experience when they launched a 26-footer in 1990. That outboard-powered fishing machine had that pronounced flare forward and high sheer at the bow to keep the boat from looking flat in the water, another hallmark of a Carolina build. “Every model we’ve built since then has had that same look,” Maxwell says. “Our whole line represents the Carolina style.”
Like most production boats, Regulators don’t resemble custom builds under the waterline. Hull bottoms on those early Carolina convertibles over 40 feet had little to no deadrise in the stern. “There wasn’t one bottom type that all custom builders replicated,” she says. “The similarities occurred above the waterline. That’s where the look came from. And those of us building small boats tried to replicate that style. But because of the size of our boats, a deep-V was important. We needed that for seakeeping.”
Regulator went to Lou Codega to get that hull. The naval architect has designed all the models in Regulator’s line of boats from 23 to 41 feet, including the new 37 center console. To a degree, the 37 represents an evolution of the builder’s line.
“It used to be that every hull we built was solid glass. Now, we have more coring to save weight and give owners the speed they want,” Maxwell says. “Our boats tend to be a little heavier than most, but the weight coupled with the hull design creates the good ride. In rough seas, that boat will settle back down on that V without cracking your back.”
Traditional Carolina boats were built more for efficiency than speed, since the fishing grounds off the Outer Banks are relatively close to the inlets. But as these boats became more popular in regions where the ride out to the fish was longer, demand for larger engines and higher cruising speeds increased. Today, lighter, faster boats are coming from many builders in the Carolinas, including the custom yards using composite materials. By trimming weight, they can add features such as gyrostabilizers without affecting the ride. That’s happening in production boats too. Regulator’s 37, for instance, comes equipped with a Seakeeper 5.
Something that is not changing at Regulator is the construction process that produces tough boats. How tough? Consider the story of the Regulator 26 Queen Bee.
In August 2008, while fishing off Nantucket, Massachusetts, two men were thrown overboard by a rogue wave and forced to swim to shore for safety. They survived, but the boat was swept away. Three and a half years later, it was found more than 3,000 miles away off the coast of Spain. Queen Bee had her two engines intact, and the hull was still seaworthy.
“Part of the deck had been popped off after the boat hit a cargo ship, but it was in amazingly good shape,” Maxwell says. “It was stunning to us that it stayed afloat for that long. That speaks to the type of quality workmanship you find in the Carolinas.”
The concept for the Carolina boat was founded around saltwater fishing, in large part because of the explosive action off the state’s coast. And then there’s the fact that some of the early custom builders were commercial fishermen.
“Take Omie Tillet. He ran charters from the boat he designed. It was his personal brand, so he put all he had into it, to make it functional and beautiful,” says Shelley Tubaugh, vice president of marketing at Grady-White Boats.
Based in Greenville, North Carolina, Grady-White is one of the more prolific builders of production fishboats in the region, with a line that ranges from 18 to 45 feet. But it didn’t start out that way. When the company was founded in 1959, clinker-built skiffs came off the line. In 1968 Eddie Smith bought the company with the help of his father, who founded the first mail order business for pantyhose. Smith knew nothing about boats, but his enthusiasm helped him grow the company and a line of family runabouts. The company didn’t pivot toward saltwater fishing until the 1977 debut of the 25 Kingfish. With a flared hull and dropped sheer, it gave the public its first glimpse of what would become the Grady-White profile.
Smith became a fanatic about fishing, participating in tournaments to learn what hard-core anglers wanted.
“In the 1980s, Smith and a crew of Grady employees fished the Hatteras Marlin Tournament in our 25,” Tubaugh says. “When they rolled in to the dock at the end of the day with this big marlin in the cockpit, the guys on the custom boats were just shocked. It was a crowning achievement for the company. We proved you can go offshore and fish safely on a smaller production boat.”
Today, the majority of Grady-White owners still fish, but they do so as a family. “We don’t see just a few hard-core fishing buddies going offshore alone anymore,” says Christian Carraway, head of product design for the company. “That’s why, over the years, we’ve added more comfort features, but we’ve done so without sacrificing fishability or toughness.”
To build in more comfort, Grady-White had to tweak flare at the bow. “It’s great at redirecting spray and keeping passengers dry, but you lose a lot of space. We reduced the flare somewhat, to pick up more usable room inside the boat. We think we struck a good middle ground,” Carraway says.
Toughness comes courtesy of Grady-White’s SeaV2 deep-V hull. The builder says the design played a part in its success with offshore fishermen. “Almost as important as the hull shape is the emotion, the feel you have when on one of our boats,” Carraway says. “Each has the ruggedness of a battlewagon that can go out on any day.”
Craftsmanship—another hallmark of a Carolina-style boat—also has a lot to do with the builder’s reputation for seakindly boats.
“Our fiberglass hulls are all handlaid for the best glass-to-resin ratio. No chop guns,” Tubaugh says. “Our customers say that when they step on a Grady-White, it feels different than other boats. It’s solid. That’s because our boats are still built by people who have a lot of pride in their work. We automate where we can with routers and precutting, but not in areas that might impact the feel.”
“Our boats have all the elements of a classic Carolina build, including the bow flare, dropped sheerline and clean styling,” says Burch Perry, general manager at Albemarle Boats in Edenton, North Carolina. “They are timeless. Carolina boats through the decades have gotten faster and more efficient with better technology, but the look hasn’t changed a whole lot. You don’t find many hard corners on them.”
In Carolina fashion, the full Albemarle line (from 25 to 41 feet) is built to fish, and all owners cast lines at some point.
“Well, except for one guy,” Perry says. “He ordered a boat 15 years ago and wanted no rod holders installed. He bought the boat to get him to the Bahamas when weather came up. He wanted the ride.”
While the style and mission of these boats has remained constant since Scott Harrell, Perry’s grandfather, founded the company in 1978, other aspects have changed. “Speed is a big thing. Carolina boats in general keep getting faster, and that’s true for us too,” Perry says, adding that the new 30 Express, which runs 52 knots with triple Yamaha outboards, is Albemarle’s fastest boat to date. “I didn’t see that coming five years ago.”
Technology is also evolving at a fast pace. The company doesn’t build a boat without a Seakeeper anymore, and features such as touch-screen electronics and sophisticated lighting systems are becoming the norm. “The technology keeps coming. It’s like we’re drinking through a fire hose all the time,” Perry says.
He has been boating and fishing along the Outer Banks since he was a kid. Perry still remembers the day he and his grandfather were catching Spanish mackerel off Hatteras Inlet when a set of 8-foot waves jacked up out of nowhere. “As we came over one, we’d see the next wave that was into the breaking process. It scared the hell out of us,” he recalls.
That experience, to a degree, led to the founding of the company. Harrell, who sold boats at the time, realized a number of brands just couldn’t stand up in the places he liked to fish. So, he partnered with builder Mac Privott to help him create one that could.
Perry has a great deal of respect for what he calls the founding fathers of Carolina boats, many of whom were commercial fishermen who spent a lot of time on the water and shared their knowledge with one another. “I believe builders today continue to collaborate, as they did back then,” he says.
To prove that point, Perry recently announced a partnership with a custom yard in the Carolinas. When Albemarle realized a number of its customers were looking for a model in the 50-foot range, there was talk of what a new boat should look like. “It needed to be the most authentic Carolina boat we’ve ever built,” Perry says. “It has to look like a cold-molded design from Dare County in the Outer Banks. We talked about connecting with someone down there to consult on the project. I called Paul Spencer.”
The new boat, the Albemarle 53 Spencer Edition, will be a fiberglass composite convertible that is expected to run in the mid-40-knot range with two Caterpillar diesels. It’s slated to launch in spring 2022.
As for the testing grounds for this new sportfisherman, Perry says the 53 will begin its shakedown cruise near the factory, on Albemarle Sound.
“Yesterday, we had 30 knots of wind over water that is 20 feet deep,” he says. “It is rough out there more often than not, with a short, nasty chop. Three feet tall and 3 feet apart. I call them square waves. That should be a good sea trial.”
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.