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Talkin' Boats - with wylie nagler owner of Yellowfin Yachts

In 1998, Wylie Nagler set out to build a fast top-of-the-line offshore fishing boat. Today, Nagler’s Yellowfin Yachts builds some of the most well-respected open offshore fishing boats on the market.His first Yellowfin was a 31-footer, introduced in 2000. He has since added eight boats to a center console lineup from 23 to 42 feet. The Sarasota, Fla., company also builds a 17-foot skiff, a 21-foot hybrid (combination bay and flats boat), and a 24-foot bay boat (

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Nagler, 44, whose background includes offshore powerboat racing and tournament fishing, grew up in south Miami, fishing out of small skiffs and watching offshore races. His grandfather raced boats and was a yacht broker. He got a business degree and spent a short time building chain restaurants but soon turned to boats, his true passion. He got a job rigging for a small company.

He later started a flats-boat builder, Back Country Powerboats, which he sold to Champion Boats in 1998. Nagler and his wife, Robyn, have three young children and live in Sarasota.

Q: What is the mission of Yellowfin Yachts?

A: To build the best offshore fishing boat out there — a boat that when you get caught in a storm and it gets really rough it’s going to get you home with no problem. That is what we do. Our philosophy is to build the best boat and use the best materials — the best hardware, the best systems. If we find something in the market that is better than what we’re using, we automatically put it in the boat and raise the price. That is our philosophy. We don’t care how much a cleat or a rod holder costs. If it’s better than what we have, it goes in our boat and we adjust our price accordingly. We’re striving to build the best boat, not as many boats as we can for as little money as we can.

Q: What are your top-selling models?

A: Our 36 and our 24 Bay. The 36 is not the first boat we designed, but it has definitely become the backbone of the company. In that size range there just isn’t a boat out there that can run the way this boat does. It’s a phenomenal running boat. Our bay boat is another staple to our line — we can’t build them fast enough. We’re nine months backlogged. We build one a week.

Q: What is your personal favorite?

The 390 is Nagler's favorite Yellowfin model.

A: Probably the 39 we just came out with. It’s everything the 36 is and more. The fuel economy is not going to be the same as the 36, but the ability to run in big seas fast is invaluable. We built it off our 42 platform but designed its layout and fishability like the 36’s. It’s an 11-1/2 foot beam, 70-plus-mph boat. It’s a big boat, and it hauls butt. It’s a lot of fun, and it just eats the ocean.

Q: How did you wind up building and designing boats?

A: I started my working career in the restaurant business, building restaurants for chains. I was up in North Carolina and didn’t like the weather and didn’t care for the area. I was into the offshore racing scene. I worked with race teams and moved back here to get back in the boating business. I worked for this guy rigging boats part time on the side. With my college background, I ended up taking over a portion of his company and building flats boats. He built some archaic stuff. With my design and ideas and fishing and racing background, I felt that I could make a better mousetrap, and I branched off and started Back Country Powerboats. I started that basically from scratch and introduced my first boat at the Miami Boat Show back in 1993. I built up the company and sold it to Champion, then I started Yellowfin.

Q: Did you form Yellowfin immediately after selling Back Country to Champion?

A: I stayed with Champion for a year, but the writing was on the wall. I was only 28 years old. You have to be able to make money building boats, and the go-fast market is definitely prone to peaks and valleys. The fishboat market is a little more stable. For the guys who fish, it’s pleasure, but it’s also habit-forming. The guys who are hard-core fishermen are always going to fish, and the guys with money who hard-core fish are always going to buy boats, regardless of what the economy is doing. It’s their escape from the real world. A lot of go-fast guys were building fishing boats. They were taking their narrow-beamed hulls and sticking center consoles in them and calling them fishboats. They really didn’t know how to design bait wells and the [deck] layouts weren’t the greatest. But they were able to sell more boats that way. We said, Let’s design a fishing boat first and take our racing background and knowledge and make it go fast.

Q: Was it difficult to design and build a fast boat that was also a stable, safe platform for fishing?

A: There’s a misconception about beam. People think more beam creates more stability. Well, you can have a narrow-chine boat with real wide rubrail-to-rubrail numbers and a big beam, and it still might rock and not be stable. We design our boats with pretty wide chine-to-chine widths, compared to other boats out there in the same size range. That creates the stability at rest when you’re fishing. We’ve been able to come up with a wide-chine boat that goes fast. In the old days, the narrower the boat, the faster it went was the premise. With reduced surface area, the boat is going to go faster. Well, you can go with wide chines, introduce air with steps, create a padded bottom boat and design elements into the bottom that will overcome the width of the boat to make it go faster. We were pretty successful at that right out of the box.

Q: Did your offshore racing experience influence your Yellowfin boats and how they are designed and built?

A: Yes. The information we learned on the racecourse has had a direct influence in the speed and performance of our boats. Running boats at over 100 mph in the ocean also teaches you about the structural integrity that is required to push a boat to its maximum potential.

Q: Do you hire naval architects or other outside help, or do you design everything in-house?

A: Everything is in-house. We have our own plug shop. Our design skills come from real-world experience. You can take a kid and send him to the Webb Institute [in New York] or another school, but if he doesn’t have any real-world experience or practical experience on the water, then he could design the coolest thing and it may not perform well. The aesthetic lines of a boat — that’s just the person’s eye. Whether your boat is pretty or not is just how you style it. But knowing about getting the [center of gravity] right and balancing the boat when it’s in the air coming off of a wave at speed is a different story. You have to know what you’re doing.

Q: What are the materials and methods you use to build your boats?

The newest center console in the Yellowfiin fleet, the 390, can be powered with triple or quad outboards.

A: All of our boats are 100 percent vinylester resin, as compared to most companies that use a vinylester skin coat and back it up with a [general purpose] blend. We learned from racing about the impacts and the loads and sandwich construction. … When you’re building a fishboat, you’re trying to build a boat that will have a 20-year lifespan, so you build them with more glass; a little more structural integrity is built into the boat. A fishboat going 60 mph in 4- to 6-footers is actually taking more load than a raceboat at 80 mph going in the same sea because the raceboat is taking short, quick impacts over the top of the waves. A fishboat is going ka-boom ka-boom; it’s falling and hitting a lot harder.

Q: You build your smaller boats with resin infusion. Why are the boats more than 24 feet hand-laid?

A: We would love to infuse everything. When you get into the bigger boats, the problem with resin infusion is they haven’t developed a resin that can really control the heat transfer in gelcoated boats. The overlapping fiberglass areas of larger boats will show signs of heat. If you’re painting, you fair the overlapping areas and paint it. With a gelcoated boat, you’re building up so many laminates and you have so many overlaps that when the resin gets sucked in there and starts to cure, the temperature increases dramatically. That creates cosmetic issues when it comes out of the mold — heat buildup basically, and the heat buildup will be in the chines and the strakes and wherever you overlap. If every part of your boat is coming out of the mold distorted because of the heat and you have to go refair it and paint it, that creates an extra expense. You don’t have to touch a hand-laid boat that comes out of the mold. With smaller boats like bay boats, you don’t have a ton of overlapping areas because it doesn’t take the loads that an offshore boat does, so the heat issue and cosmetic issues are not issues.

Q: What are the benefits of building with resin infusion?

A: It’s by far a better way to build a boat. It takes a lot of human error out of the build process. The biggest benefit of infusing, outside of the quality of product, is the human factor — it’s so much better for your employees. They’re not working in the resin all day, every day. You skin it out and everything is going in dry. And you’re loading the resin into a bucket and turning on a switch, so you’re basically working with a clipboard monitoring what you’re doing. It takes less time. We can build an infused boat quicker than we can if we hand-lay it. The labor load changes. Let’s say it takes five guys to build the hull in hand-laid sandwich construction. We can take those same five guys that day, have them skin the boat out and then break it down to three guys for the next two days and infuse the boat. And then we can take the other two guys and put them somewhere else. It’s more efficient.

Q: Can you name some designers or builders you admire?

A: I admire Michael Peters and Steve French. Mike Peters, more than anybody, has influenced me in the short career that I have had here. His styling is second to none. His work is beautiful. He built raceboats. He was ahead of his era; he is the one who brought the catamaran into the world of offshore racing, for the most part. Cougar — the James Beard-Clive Curtis Cougar catamarans — was before him, but Peters refined it and really changed the game. Some of his big boats are absolutely beautiful. He has done some special projects that were just off the hook.

Q: Your boats are good-looking. How important is that aesthetic appeal?

A: You can build the fastest car, but if it’s not pretty, then it’s not going to sell. It has to capture the person’s eye as he is walking by. He has to say, “Wow, that’s cool. Let me go check it out.” If it’s shaped like a box or a framing carpenter designed it, you will sell some, but you’re not going to capture the essence of what the design is all about. We try to blend our style and what we feel is appealing to the eye. I like Carolina flare. I like sweeping, flowing sheer lines. I am not a broken-sheer guy. … There are guys who love broken sheers and don’t like sweeping sheers, and they’re just not going to buy our boat. And that’s OK.

Q: Are boaters looking for different characteristics and qualities than 10 years ago?

A: Most people are paying much more attention to fuel economy. Even the guys who the money doesn’t matter to are paying attention to fuel. Ninety percent of our customers pay cash, so if you can come in and write a check for $200,000-plus on a boat, you’re typically not worried about fuel. But they do ask the question: “What can I expect for fuel burn?” … From a fishability standpoint, not much has changed. Bait well design and technology has improved, and we have always been at the forefront of that.

Q: Do you have any advice for consumers looking to buy a fishing boat?

A: There’s always going to be an inherent difference between a production boat and a semicustom or custom boat. There is always going to be a quality difference. If money is not a factor, a guy is going to look at what fits his needs first. What am I using the boat for? This is what we tell the guys who come in here. If they say, “I am looking at this boat, this boat and this boat,” we advise them to go and ride in each one of those boats. Try to pick a day when it’s a little windy and choppy. … maybe the seas are 3 foot and the wind is 20 mph. Then you can make your decision from that. That type of comparison will quickly weed out the boats that are not up to snuff. When you really start breaking it down and looking at the systems and the way boats are designed and the way they’re built and the way they ride and the fuel economy, the cream rises to the top. And when you get up there, you’ll find only a small percentage of boats.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.