The wind howled out of the east at 25 knots as we plowed through the incoming tide rushing through North Carolina’s Barden Inlet. In the process, our crew learned what a pair of jeans must feel like when going through the wash cycle. Weather be damned, we had serious plans—there were fish to catch. For many people, this is a day to stay home and wait for better weather. But for those with the right craft, such as the North Carolina-built Jones Brothers Marine 23 we used to get out of that angry inlet, it’s all in a day’s work. It’s the tumultuous inlets, unpredictable weather and long runs to the Gulf Stream fishing grounds that led to the creation of the iconic and influential sportfishing boats built in North Carolina. Today, many boats utilize design cues evolved from 70 years of boatbuilding in North Carolina. That tradition of craftsmanship is present at a handful of locations around the eastern part of the state, where you’ll find everything from a 45-foot convertible built in Wanchese to a rugged center console handcrafted on Albemarle Sound. There are many reputable builders in this part of the world; among them are the following companies, each dedicated to the art of building reliable boats the Carolina way.
Joan Maxwell didn’t begin life loving fishing or fishboats. But today, with her husband, Owen, she runs one of the most respected offshore center console fishboat companies on the planet—Regulator Marine of Edenton.
“I wasn’t into fishing when I was a kid, but we had a 17-foot boat we used to shrimp with,” Maxwell says. “It wasn’t until I met Owen, who is a hardcore fisherman at heart, that I discovered fishing. It didn’t take long for me to get into the excitement of billfishing.”
The idea for Regulator came about in 1988, when the couple, both licensed pilots, were wandering around a fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, talking about their next move. “We were trying to figure out where we were headed in life,” Joan says. “At one point, Owen looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t we build boats? That’s all I want to do.’” Over the next couple of years, Joan and Owen crafted their plan, working to figure out what sort of boats they wanted to produce. Eventually, they were referred to two naval architects, Lou Codega and Mike Russell, who at the time were working for the U.S. Navy. They agreed to take on the project of designing the company’s first boat, the now legendary Regulator 26 center console.
That boat led to more models, all drawn to provide a safe, dry and comfortable ride. “The ride of our boats, the quality with which they are built, and the joy they bring our customers are the things that get us out of bed each day,” Maxwell says.
The Carolina DNA in Regulator’s current nine-boat center console lineup—ranging from 23 to 41 feet in length—is easy to spot. The pronounced, widely flared bow—a Carolina fishboat staple—is clearly visible, as are deep-V hulls with sharp entries and generous transom deadrise. These elements help provide a smooth ride in snotty conditions. Spacious cockpits with ample freeboard provide a sense of security for passengers. Then there is the meticulous quality that is impressive for a company producing hundreds of boats each year. Craftsmanship and pride have always been hallmarks of Carolina-built boats.
Today, after 30 years in business, Maxwell says the company is committed to center console design. “We don’t have aspirations to build dual consoles or dayboats,” she says. “Over the last year, we’ve introduced a couple of new center console models that cater to the coastal and near-shore market that can be used offshore on the right weather days.” Those models fill what Regulator calls its XO line, short for crossover. The 24XO, which debuted in February, and 26XO are designed to be used in either skinny water or offshore in appropriate conditions.
WINTER CUSTOM YACHTS
While his kindergarten cohorts were busy making forts in the woods, Tim Winters dreamed about one thing: being a boatbuilder. Now in his late 30s, he keeps things well-greased at Winter Custom Yachts in Hubert.
“I always wanted to be a boatbuilder,” Winters says. “I’ve never really considered anything else. I remember drawing boats in elementary school, obsessing about the boats I saw on the coast, and then daydreaming about building them.
At 17, he began apprenticing at Shearline Boatworks in Morehead City, North Carolina, working under founder Mason Cox. Winters says he built around 12 boats with Cox.
After securing a mechanical engineering degree from North Carolina State University, Winters worked on a couple of 58-foot sportfish boats with Jarrett Bay Boatworks co-founder Jim Luxton at C&L Boatworks.
Then, in 2004, Winters began construction on what would become Winter Custom Yachts’ first hull: a 62-foot sportfish named Galot 3. Sixteen years later, Winters has nearly 30 hulls under his belt, ranging from walkaround and express boats to center consoles, convertibles and even a flats boat.
Winters’ boats have a unique look that blends traditional Carolina sportfish lines with more contemporary design cues. “Our boats have a softness in their curves with purposeful contemporary lines that our customers say make them look distinctive,” Winters says.
Among the new builds underway are a 46-foot walkaround, a 50-foot, outboard-powered express and a 63-foot convertible. When asked what makes his boats stand apart, Winters says it’s all in the details. “We obsess over the smallest things to make sure we get everything just right,” he says. “That attention leads to a great boat, from the way it rides to the way it looks.”
JARRETT BAY BOATWORKS
Randy Ramsey was 18 when he first got his U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license. Within 24 hours, he was running his first paid charter. “I wanted to be a charter boat captain since I was a little kid,” Ramsey says.
Before long, Ramsey found that the boat he was running off the Outer Banks wasn’t checking all the boxes he needed to be a successful charter skipper. So, he and a partner set out to build a boat on their own. “I had the opportunity to fish with Omie Tillett on his boat Sportsman, and it was faster, smoother and just all-around better than any other boat I’d been on,” Ramsey says. “When I told him that I wanted to build my own boat he was generous with his knowledge and provided me with bottom shapes, offsets and information we’d need to get the project running.”
In 1985 he rented a leaky old boatbuilding shed for about $250 a month and made his first materials purchase—a drum of West System epoxy. When asked by the sales representative what the name of his company was, Ramsey said, “I don’t have one.” The rep told Ramsey that he could not sell to an individual, and that he’d need a company name. Ramsey looked out the window at nearby Jarrett Bay, paused, and told the representative, “Okay, it’s Jarrett Bay Boatworks.”
Two years later, in January 1988, a cold-molded 52-foot sportfish was towed out of the shed. That boat, Sensation, was Jarrett Bay Boatworks’ first hull, and she still runs daily charters out of Morehead City today. “Not long after launching that boat, we had a charter skipper come ask us to build him one,” says Ramsey. “We built that boat and then got two more orders pretty quickly. More orders followed. I didn’t plan on being a boatbuilder, but that’s just how things played out.”
Today, the company based in Beaufort has nearly 70 hulls to its credit, among them some jaw-dropping models such as Jaruco, a 90-foot convertible that launched in late 2017 with twin 2,600-hp MTUs and a top end in the high 40-knot range. The boat took two years to build and is made with copious amounts of carbon fiber and also has titanium prop shafts. “When we build a boat like this, the technologies we employ end up trickling down through subsequent builds,” says Ramsey. “We’re always looking to improve with every boat we make.”
Ramsey says the culture at his company helps set it apart from other builders. “People buy our boats because we sweat the small stuff,” he says. “We always want to build boats that exceed our customer’s expectations, and we embrace technology rather than shy away from it.”
In the 1950s, textile manufacturer Willis Slane was looking for a boat that would stand up to the waters off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. He gathered a group of investors, hired naval architect Jack Hargrave, and began work on what would become Knit Wits, a 41-foot convertible constructed entirely of fiberglass—a first for this type and size of boat.
Sixty years later, Hatteras builds luxury motoryachts from 60 to 105 feet, and sportfishing yachts from 41 to 70 feet. The builder also brought back its Cabo brand of sportfishing yachts in 2019 with the launch of the Cabo 41. The boats are built in the company’s New Bern facility on the Neuse River.
Performance, ride and quality have always been hallmarks of the Hatteras brand, and Slane knew from the beginning that fiberglass was the material with which these boats would be built. It was in Florida where he had run a small fishing boat made of fiberglass and quickly learned that the boat could endure a pounding that far exceeded what its occupants could take.
Before long, Hatteras expanded its offerings and began building cabin cruisers and motoryachts. In the mid-1980s, the quest to reduce noise and vibration led Hatteras to innovate, and the company pioneered the use of multi-blade propellers, developing five-, six-, seven- and eight-blade props with manufacturer Rolla Propellers. The multi-blade propellers, coupled with deep gears and large shafts, significantly reduced noise and vibration, in addition to improving performance. It’s just one in a long line of boatbuilding innovations Hatteras is credited with.
More recently, according to the builder, Hatteras patented the hull tunnel air induction system, which reduces cavitation. The shockwave of the blade collides with an air cushion that lies between the propeller and the hull bottom. The company claims this results in less noise and vibration.
Though the company has been bought and sold through a number of acquisitions over the years, today it remains poised to produce the vessels that pay tribute to the area’s boatbuilding heritage. Among the noteworthy new models Hatteras has brought to market are the brand-new GT65 Carolina convertible, GT45X express, flybridge, tower and open models, and the GT54 and GT59 convertibles. They’re all built with the same care and craftsmanship that went into that first 41-footer more than 60 years ago.
JONES BROTHERS MARINE
If you’re looking for a tough and rugged fishing boat, the best places to start looking are around some of the most unfriendly coastlines in the country—that includes Cape Lookout, North Carolina, where a fishing day can turn from idyllic to mayhem in minutes. Here, you’ll almost always find at least a few of the rugged center consoles from Jones Brothers Marine of Morehead City. When it comes to light-tackle and fly-fishing machines that can take a beating while delivering a safe, solid ride, the builder’s Cape Fisherman models are difficult to beat. Rob and Donnie Jones built their first boats—flat-bottomed bateaus—in the late 1980s. Designed and built to cover the back bays and salty coastal waterways, the bateaus gained a following among anglers looking to fish for speckled trout, red drum and other species, as well as to explore the sandy barrier islands that pepper the state’s coastline.
In the early 1990s, naturalist, angler and conservationist Tom Earnhardt approached Jones Brothers Marine about building a different kind of boat—a V-bottom center console that could be used to fish the notoriously cantankerous waters around Cape Lookout. “Tom’s the kind of guy who brings a lot of gear with him when he fishes,” says Donnie Jones. “So, we had to think really carefully about how to accommodate fly rods, reels, tackle bags and all sorts of other stuff. More importantly, the boat had to have a solid ride in a chop.”
The result of all this thinking was the Cape Fisherman 1910 LT, a 19-foot center-console fishboat that could deliver fly and light-tackle anglers to big-water fish such as false albacore, red drum and striped bass. The boat quickly developed a following. Anglers touted its simple, uncluttered layout with lots of deck and casting space that was free from cleats, navigation lights, bow rollers and other hardware that can snag fly lines. Best of all, the boat could handle a sea that sent other boats running for the dock.
Other models followed, including the Cape Fisherman 18, 20, 23, and later, a 26. “The 23 is our most popular model,” says Donnie Jones. “It’s built using all composites and hand-laid fiberglass and has a rugged, wash-down exterior. It’s a boat you can use hard all day, wash down with a hose, and then do it all over again the next day.”
Then, there’s the legendary Cape Fisherman ride. Capt. Brian Horsley, who has been guiding clients in a Jones Brothers 23 off the Outer Banks for 17 years, says the boat allows him to fish when others have to go home. “The boat allows me to get my anglers to the fish economically and safely with a great ride, even when it’s nautical out there,” he says. “There’s no other boat I’d rather run.”
Paul Spencer’s family has roots going back six generations in Dare County. Spencer got started in professional fishing early in life, mating on charter boats through high school. In the mid 1990s, after years of professional fishing, he decided to build his own boat.
“I’d been running charters for quite a while,” Spencer says, “but I needed a better boat. I couldn’t afford to have one built, so I figured I could build one, run it for a couple of seasons, and then sell it at a profit.” Luckily for Spencer, his network of family and friends in the community knew about boats and how to build them.
His father-in-law, Sheldon Midgett, was an influence, as were people like Buddy Kennedy and Billy Baum. Spencer says one thing that made the North Carolina boatbuilding world tick back then was that people were willing to share their knowledge. “My father-in-law and others were really essential to building my first boat. I owe them a lot,” says Spencer.
His first sportfish boat (a 58-foot convertible sportfish) splashed in 1997. The boat sold only a few months after it came out of the shed. His next boat, Anticipation, was a special boat for Spencer. “I ran it up off Ocean City, Maryland, during the 1999 White Marlin Open tournament,” Spencer says. “We ended up doing really well, and our boat gained a lot of visibility. Requests to build more boats started rolling in, and that’s how we got our start.”
Today, Spencer’s company, Spencer Yachts, is creeping up on its 115th hull. Recent launches include convertibles from 60 to 87 feet in length, as well as some express boats between 37 and 45 feet. The boats are built in the tightknit boatbuilding community of Wanchese, which is only 8 miles from the sportfishing fleet at Oregon Inlet.
“Performance, efficiency and ride are all very important, but I spend a lot of time looking at other boats, including ones we’ve already built, and tweaking the looks of the boat, inside and out,” Spencer says. “I like that our boats have a distinctive look to them, and so do our customers.”
Build quality and durability are also high on the list of attributes any good Carolina custom boat should have. “These boats get used really, really hard,” Spencer says, “so it’s important that we build them to last for decades. That starts the moment we begin putting a jig together. It’s a handcrafted operation that requires a real dedication to getting the details right. That’s what we try to do every day we come to work.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.