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Talkin’ boats with Paul Spencer founder, Spencer Yachts

Under a tin shed in Manns Harbor, N.C., with no power or plumbing, Paul Spencer in 1996 founded Spencer Yachts. Today, his Wanchese, N.C., company builds handsome custom sportfishing boats from 37 to 87 feet, blending Carolina flare with Florida styling, and ranging from $1.3 million to $9 million (

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Spencer stays on boatbuilding’s cutting edge, using lightweight composite core materials and the latest in propulsion technologies. He has built an 87-foot boat with four pod drives and joystick helm control. The company, which employs about 125 workers, also has built a few 37-foot, twin-outboard express fishing boats.

Spencer, 56, grew up in the sportfishing world around Oregon Inlet, N.C., working as a deck mate in his teens. He received a captain’s license when he was 20 and sold the first boat he built — one meant for personal use — before he’d even finished it.

In this interview, he talks about his passion for boats, fishing and speed; his appreciation for efficiency and a smooth ride; and a new 26-foot center console he is building. Three of his five children — Stacey, Cliff and Daniel — work in the business, which includes repair and maintenance, a metal fabrication shop and brokerage. Spencer lives in Manteo, N.C., with his wife, Shelly.

Q: What role do you think pod propulsion and joystick technology will play in the next few years at Spencer?

A: I always think there is a better way to build a mousetrap, and I am always looking for that. It has been fun working with some of the new technology out there. You have to be willing to be part of the learning curve. Of course, you don’t want something that’s a total disaster. I think the pods so far have done pretty well. They have added another dimension to boat handling and efficiency. They give us more speed. They don’t have them for the big boats yet. I shouldn’t say that because we have a Spencer 87 with four pods. I am not saying everyone should go with pods, but they don’t scare me. We build 10 or 12 different variations of pod-driven boats now, and I would consider them basically a success. There is a learning curve for each and every one. People by nature are scared of new stuff.

Q: Describe the 87, which I believe is the largest boat you’ve built.

A: The 87-footer has four Cats with new ZF pods. This customer is not afraid to step out and do something different. He owned a 76 Spencer. Our target was to build something bigger, faster and because he is a fisherman more maneuverable. The pods gave us the maneuverability and more efficiency. The 76 cruised at 32 knots, burning 220 gallons per hour. The 87 with pods cruises at the same speed, burning 160 gph — that’s an amazing gain in efficiency.

Q: Is weight or drag a drawback for pods?

A: I don’t see the extra weight being an issue because you are eliminating shafts and rudders and other equipment that goes along with inboards. Plus the LCG (longitudinal center of gravity) of the boat moves aft, and the boat performs better.

Q: What is the size range of pod boats that you’ve built?

A: For pod boats we’ve built 43, 45, 49, 57, 60, 61 and 87 with a lot of different variations. We work with the customer and see what they want exactly. We still build more conventionally powered boats than pod boats. We have eight boats under construction, and two of them are pod boats.

Q: Is there a boatbuilding project you are particularly excited about?

Top-of-the-line craftsmanship is a hallmark of Spencer Yachts.

A: One package is for an avid fisherman who likes speed. Over the past 10 years we learned ways to save weight and add performance, like eliminating scoops and using Teflon bottom paints. These sound like simple things, but when you incorporate 10 of them you end up 3 knots faster. This owner wants the ability to cruise at 42 knots, so we have a boat that will do that — an 87 under construction. We think that 87 will be a 46-plus-knot boat.

Q: What is wrong with today’s boats?

A: Sometimes something looks good from the outside, but it is not accessible or user-friendly when you go to work on it. You should not have to take apart half the boat to get to one side of the motor. I see that a lot. That’s something [builders] need to address in the planning process and not just the engine rooms — the staterooms, the head, the helm, the whole package.

Q: What is your favorite Spencer boat?

A: The 87 is a favorite because people don’t know how good it is until they get on it and ride it. That may sound egotistical, but they perform so well. I am a speed freak and love the faster boats — the boats you cruise at 40 knots. And we’ve built three or four of those. If you need to go another 50 miles it’s no big deal because you’re so fast.

One of my other favorite boats was the second boat I ever built [a 61-footer called Anticipation]. It has always been like a fish magnet. It helped put Spencer Yachts on the map. Maybe it is just sentimental to me. I ran it as charter captain the first year and charter-fished it. And I think we won $1.2 million the first year. This was 1997 or 1998.

Q: So forget the idea that it’s all about the journey, not the destination?

Spencer likes a boat that is lean, fast and rides well. This is a 70-footer.

A: I like a boat that goes fast but is also comfortable. That’s a big deal with us. Just to say your boat is fast doesn’t mean much. It needs to go fast in a choppy sea. If a boat only goes fast down the channel, that doesn’t mean much. We want a boat that looks good, performs well and is a great value.

Q: How did you start Spencer Yachts?

A: I ran charter boats, and one time I needed a new boat. I couldn’t afford one, so I built it. My wife and I mortgaged the house, sold our small boat and built one. It was 58 feet. It was a nice charter boat — two motors and fast. I incorporated some of the ideas that I had thought of during my 20 years on the water. You are out on the water for all those years and dream about building a boat. When you’re fishing every day for 20 years you think a lot about what you want in a boat.

We started with nearly nothing. We had enough money to put up a tin shed with no doors or electricity or plumbing, but you could build a boat under the roof. Originally my business plan was to build one for myself and use it as a charter boat. If I could sell it and make a little money I would do it and build myself another one. We built the first boat, and it performed well. Someone noticed this and said, “Wow, can you build me one of those?” I actually sold it right away — but only after I used it for its first summer. The boat was named The Sizzler, with twin 800-hp Cats.

Q: Tell me about your first personal boat when you were a kid.

A: When I was kid a big boat was 36 feet. I never really owned a boat for a good while. My first boat was actually one that my father-in-law built. He was the builder, and all I did was help construct it. I used it for a few years, and then I bought it from him. This was the mid-’80s. It was a framed and planked boat built out of juniper. It was a 55-foot single-engine boat.

Q: What was your family life like?

The Spencers are passionate anglers. Shown here are (from left) Cliff, Daniel and their father Paul.

A: I grew up in Manns Harbor on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I fished out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, mating for legendary people like Omie Tillett. I came from a large family — five brothers and two sisters. My family was in commercial boating and fishing for a couple generations, and we used to catch fish for the restaurants.

Q: What other builders and designers do you admire?

A: Certainly all the guys in my area, the local guys. Omie Tillett, my father-in-law Sheldon Midgett, Sunny Briggs and Buddy Davis and all those guys here locally who were pioneers in the business and had my interests. As I have gotten older I have gotten to see other parts of the world and meet other builders like Roy Merritt, who is a great friend, and I admire his beautiful work. One of the neat things is that in our custom business there are no real big secrets. I have called on his knowledge two or three times, and we have shared knowledge with other builders. Nobody has the market cornered, for sure. We all have our little niches.

Q: What makes Spencer boats special?

A: You get to a point where you have your own signature in the lines of the boat. I have always liked a boat that’s lean and fast and rides well. My thought was if we need more room, let’s make it longer, not wider or fatter in the bow. I like the Carolina flare, but I also like some of the sleekness of the boats by the Florida builders — the Tributes and Jim Smith boats. The boats that I build sort of meld their look and the Carolina look with our own touches. Whether anybody likes to admit it the whole industry is like that — melding, that is.

Q: Describe how Spencer Yachts builds its boats.

Keeping the crew in fighting trim is easy with the gym aboard this Spencer 87.

A: We are a custom builder of any size. We have built some 43s, but if someone wants a 44 or 45 we will build it. We built cold-molded boats, which means we built a thin layer of wood contoured to the shape of the jig and then built the layers up until the thickness became substantial. And then we would fiberglass it and pull the jig out, and we would have our boat. We have now graduated to a lot of composite materials. Instead of using the wood core we use a lot of composite cores like Core-Cell and Divinycell. We still have people who want a wood core, and we give it to them.

It’s funny because I grew up around framed-and-planked boats, but the first boat I ever built was a cold-molded boat. But that is the way to go. They are lighter, stronger. Somebody really old school like my grandfather would be hesitant to change. I can hear him saying, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” That’s why new generations come along and change things. And I am sure someone will come along and improve on what we’re doing.

Q: Do you design the boats?

A: I do. I am not a naval architect or a CAD person, and sometimes we will employ someone who has those skills. I just start with a sketch of what I want and then sit down and start drawing the boat. We’ve never built two boats identically. We have worked with several naval architects. Most of the boats we build are a variation of the one before it. I’ve never relied on a naval architect. Certainly I have used their expertise, but in the end it is a Spencer boat.

Q: What do you like most about boating?

A: Just being able to get out on a boat you’ve built and run it and experience its good performance. I still love to fish, and we do that a lot. In fact, I will be flying to Florida to fish a three-day tournament with one of my customers. I wind up fishing in 15 to 20 tournaments a year. I get to fish a lot and use the product. As fishing changes you can adapt the boats to meet those needs. When people start making longer runs, for example, you see the need for more fuel on board. I try to be a part of the boat — use it, sleep on it, wake up on it. The functionality of a boat — you need to use the boat.

Q: Have you ever built smaller open powerboats?

This 60-foot convertible was launched last August.

A: We’re finishing up a 26-foot boat right now. There are a lot of people wanting a smaller boat with the look of one of our big boats. I drew one that has that. I think it is going to do well. In the next few weeks we will have it done. It is a center console boat, powered with outboards, twin 175-hp Mercury Verados. It’s a mid-40-knot boat. We’ve done some styling, like a broken sheer and teak covering boards.

Q: What are people looking for in a boat these days?

A: I have had a lot of people who have scaled back. They might say, “I still want a boat to fish on, but I don’t need as much granite or woodwork inside.” So you try to reduce the cost, and that’s hard when you sell top-of-the-line yachts. You face the question: How can we cut this cost and still build a quality boat? We’ve found ways to be more efficient and still deliver a nice boat, though. I would love to build 87-footers, but in this economy people might not want that much boat. They want a nice boat to fish on and don’t have to have so much fluff. We’ve had to adapt and help hit a price point, but yet still build a nice boat. That has been challenging. You can build a 60-footer for $2 million or build it for $3.5 million. They’re both 60-footers but quite different.

February 2013 issue