Crafting Dreams: The legacy of boat building on the Outer Banks

By on May 15, 2024

Native Americans building a canoe
Drawing made by John White on Roanoke Island in 1585
(Courtesy: The News and Observer, Raleigh, NC – via the Outer Banks History Center)

By Brian Tress | Outer Banks Voice

“The way they build their boats is very wonderful. For although they lack any iron tools such as we use, they can make boats as good as ours. And these boats are seaworthy enough to take them sailing or fishing wherever they want to go.”

These are the observations of the artist John White on the boat-building prowess of the Native Americans who lived on Roanoke Island in 1585. Known as the Algonquian-speaking tribes, they were skilled in crafting dugout canoes from large trees using controlled burning and sharpened shells to scrape off bark and charred wood. The canoes were used for fishing, transportation, and trade along the coastal waterways of the Outer Banks.1

Fast-forward about four centuries. Boat building is a thriving industry on the Outer Banks. Superior performance, groundbreaking design elements and high-quality finishings may be the dominant attributes, but the underlying theme has been the same for centuries – fishability, i.e., built for an enhanced fishing experience.

Boat builders on the Outer Banks have always been fishermen first; their foundational knowledge of what is needed to navigate our sounds and seas is embedded in the boats they design. As a result, the Outer Banks is known today as a hub for purchasing some of the most sought-after sport fishing vessels on the planet.

According to Daniel Spencer, whose family owns and manages Spencer Yachts in Wanchese, “Boats were born for charter fishing. The only way we got paid is if we went fishing and came back in a timely way.” He adds, “There’s a big difference between a fishing boat and a sport fishing yacht. The boats we are building today have got to perform and look good – fishability is about performance, layout and style.”

For those paying millions of dollars – as much as $15 million, according to local boat builders – for a luxury sport fishing yacht handcrafted in Wanchese, the goal is not only to catch a blue marlin, but to do so without a sore bum.

Customers come from all over the world seeking the ultimate in custom craftmanship using the finest material and techniques, and performance characterized by speed, maneuverability, a smooth ride, and resilience to a variety of sea conditions.

 

The Beginning

Each stage in the evolution of boat building on the Outer Banks was born of necessity – challenges led to innovation; form followed function. The shad boat, indigenous to the Outer Banks and now the state boat of North Carolina, is a good early example.

Developed around 1878 on Roanoke Island by George Washington Creef, the shad boat – named after the fish it was used to catch – was designed as a workboat for fishermen at the time, who needed to carry large loads without significantly increasing their draft (the depth of water needed for the boat to float). Around 28 feet long, it was built using native trees such as juniper, cypress or cedar, combining traditional split-log construction techniques with plank-on-plank construction, with the keel built from a single log. Its distinctive design included an elegant, flared bow, which helped to deflect waves and provide a more stable ride.2

George Washington Creef designed the Shad Boat around 1878, now the State Boat of North Carolina (l), Creef at work at his boathouse in Wanchese around 1890 (r)
(Courtesy: Outer Banks History Center (l), Smithsonian Institution (r) – via Roanoke Island Maritime Museum)

According to Barry Wickre, Operations Manager at the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum, “You needed a boat back then to get anywhere, out of necessity. The shad boat started as a log canoe and became the pickup truck of its time.”

The shad boat negotiated the shallow, choppy sounds and volatile seas of the Outer Banks until the 1930s, first as a sailboat and then via outboard motor.

The Ella View, a shad boat, built by George Washington Creef in 1889 (cabin added later), was still in use in the early 1960s (l) and is on display today at the Boathouse at the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum (r)
(Courtesy: Roanoke Island Maritime Museum (l), Brian Tress (r))

In the early 1940s, boat building activity on Roanoke Island became supercharged by the advent of World War II. LaVern Parker – with roots tracing back through generations of local boat builders – narrates a video exhibit at the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum on boat building in Manteo during World War II.  According to the narrative, Roanoke Island first became a boat-building hub due to the efforts of a consortium of 12 local businessmen, who saw the US’s entry into World War II as an opportunity to stem the flow of skilled workers out of Manteo.

The consortium formed the Manteo Boat Building Company and implemented a strategy to win government contracts to build boats in Manteo for the wartime effort. In total, 20 wooden dinghies and 40 larger military boats – mostly air rescue boats, which were sometimes used as sub-chasers along the coast – were built from 1941 to 1945, employing as many as 200 skilled workers in Manteo over this time. As the town’s living wage increased, the economic impact spilled over to shop owners, who often complained that there was not enough inventory in the stores to satisfy demand. Ultimately, it was boat building that enabled Manteo to make significant public works improvements as it transitioned from the wartime economy, as Parker explains in the narrative.

Wooden dinghy (l) and air rescue boat (r) built by the Manteo Boat Building Co. during World War II
(Courtesy: Davis Family Collection via WWII video exhibit at Roanoke Island Maritime Museum)

The Evolution

As the decades passed and fishing for sport became increasingly popular, boats built on the Outer Banks got bigger and faster, more innovative and stylish.

According to John Baylis, owner of Bayliss Boatworks in Wanchese, “Fisherman originally became boat builders out of necessity. They knew what they needed and would build the most effective weapon there is for catching billfish. They would literally go into a shed in April, and in October out came a charter boat.”  He muses, “Now we are building 73-, 84- 90-footers, due to the power of today’s engines and good hull design.”

Daniel Spencer says, “We’ve built 87-footers. Now ships can move boats anywhere in the world. I ask clients ‘Where do you fish?’ If they go to places with good inlets, they tend to buy big.”

Buying big: a brand new 77-foot sport fishing yacht at Spencer Yachts, Wanchese
(Courtesy: Brian Tress)

The boats also got faster. Charles Perry, author of Big Fish, Better Boats, is a world-renown fisherman who lives in Wanchese. He explains that “In Hatteras in the 1930s, a fisherman named Ernal Foster designed the first boat for sport fishing in the state. It had a rounded stern for coming in on a following sea – the waves behind you split around the stern instead of going over it. Now, most boats are built for speed and can come in over the waves.”  He adds, “Today, boats cruise at 30 knots but can go up to 40. The early boats used to go only 10 or 12 knots.”

According to the Dare County Boat Builders Association, Buddy Davis, one of the Outer Banks’ most celebrated boat builders, was a pioneer in taking custom-built Carolina sport fishing boats up a notch, incorporating yacht finishes and contemporary design elements, and popularizing the exaggerated bow style known as the Carolina flare. Not only is this design element functional in its ability to cut through rough seas and deflect spray, providing a smoother, faster and drier ride, but it is also distinctly elegant, ultimately becoming the signature of a Carolina boat.

The delta conic bottom was another Outer Banks innovation; although shad boats already had a similar feature, no one had ever put it in a sport fishing boat. Designed by Paul Spencer – Daniel Spencer’s dad and founder of Spencer Yachts – the delta conic bottom incorporates a V-shaped section at the bow that transitions into a conical shape towards the stern.

Example of a bow with Carolina flare (l) and of a delta conic bottom (r) at Spencer Yachts
Courtesy: Brian Tress)

Paul Spencer explains his design this way: “The delta conic bottom is rounded with no flat spot. When you fall on a flat spot, it hits the water hard and makes a splash. But a rounded bottom lands softly without splashing, like a watermelon thrown in the water. This affects fuel burn, and you don’t get beat up or soaked by the waves.”

And finally, as sport fishing boats became luxury fishing yachts, interior design, layout and durability – particularly important for resale value – took on new importance. Daniel Spencer recounts wooden countertops made from petrified trees from Madagascar with inlaid nautilus fossils.

“We are the Ferraris of the boat-building world,” he says. “We are the only boat builder who will post-cure a whole boat – we basically build an oven around the boat and cook it for five hours at 200 degrees to make it strong. We don’t offer this as an option, we just do it.”

John Bayliss reflects, “Our customers today – they’re a smaller audience and demand super-high quality, not only fit and finish but in the electrical and mechanical systems. We do 99.9% of the entire production in house – metalwork, carpentry, painting, electrical, mechanical, and so on – the only things we don’t do are the tower and interior soft goods.”  Smiling, he adds, “These boats are like my children.”

The anatomy of a sport fishing yacht at Bayliss Boatworks. Clockwise from top left: construction of interior structure within the hull; painting the hull; stainless steel rudder made in-house; cabinetry made in-house
(Courtesy: Bayliss Boatworks (painting photo); Brian Tress (remaining three photos)

The Current State

According to Charles Perry, the quality of boat building on the Outer Banks “is superior to anywhere you are going to find because boat builders here were fishermen first.”

It is quite possible that boat building is the second-largest private employer on the Outer Banks, behind tourism and its related fields.3 According to local sources, there are currently a dozen active boat builders here. It’s a club that has been around for many generations, whose members say that they cooperate with each other more than they compete.

Daniel Spencer proclaims that, “The Outer Banks is a global trend setter – it changed the way sport fishing boats are built all over the world.”

The boats are built slowly and meticulously, many taking two to three years to complete, depending on the size of the vessel. Even with over 100 employees, some builders will only have a handful of boats under production simultaneously. Waiting lists are lengthy and can stretch out as far as eight years.

Boat builders say that the customers themselves are fiercely loyal, often buying several boats consecutively from the same builder, driven by their high resale value. To protect that value, customers bring their boats back to the Outer Banks from all over the world to be serviced. According to Bayliss, “Every builder has a certain group of people that follow and love their boats and are loyal. Most of our boats will resell at close to or higher than the original price.”

Fathers and sons: Daniel and Paul Spencer of Spencer Yachts (l), John Sr. and John Jr. of Bayliss Boatworks (r)
(Courtesy: Brian Tress)

The current state of boatbuilding on the Outer Banks is strong and durable, like the boats themselves – innovation is rewarded, demand is robust, quality is highly valued, and prices reflect all of this. Notably, there are high barriers to entry – a century’s accumulation of knowledge and skills on how to build a boat that looks and feels good, and is fast, seaworthy and can bring in the billfish.


Notes:

1 William S. Powell, “Tar Heels Good Ship Builders,” The News and Observer, Raleigh, NC, Vol CLXXVII, No. 44 (1953).

2 Various Exhibits, Outer Banks Maritime Museum (Manteo, NC, April 4, 2024).

3 Website Article, “More than Tourism – Important OBX Industries,” Carolina Designs Realty, Duck, NC (Feb 28, 2018).

 


BIDDER PRE-QUALIFICATION REQUEST:

Barnhill Building Group has been selected as the Construction Manager @ Risk by the College of the Albemarle and is seeking to pre-qualify construction trade contractors to submit bids for the furnishing labor, materials, equipment, and tools for the new College of The Albemarle – Allied Health Sciences Simulation Lab (COA Health Sciences) located in Elizabeth City, NC. Please note: Only subcontractors who have been prequalified by Barnhill will be able to submit a Bid.

The project consists of the new construction of a 38,000-sf, 2-story expansion to the existing Owens Health Sciences Center and will house classrooms, labs, and a simulation lab. The site is just over just over 4.5 acres and is located on an active campus. This new construction will be a steel structure with a brick and metal panel veneer, curtainwall, and storefront glazing with a PVC roof membrane.

Principal trade and specialty contractors are solicited for the following Bid Packages:

BP0100: General Trades

BP0105: Final Cleaning

BP0390: Turnkey Concrete

BP0400: Turnkey Masonry

BP0500: Structural Steel & Misc. Steel

BP0740: Roofing

BP0750: Metal Panels

BP0790: Caulking / Caulking

BP0800: Turnkey Doors/Frames/Hardware

BP0840: Glass & Glazing

BP0925: Drywall

BP0960: Resilient Flooring

BP0980: Acoustical Ceilings

BP0990: Painting & Wallcovering

BP1005: Toilet Specialties / Accessories / Division 10

BP1010: Signage

BP1098: Demountable Partitions

BP1230: Finish Carpentry and Casework

BP1250: Window Treatment

BP1400: Elevators

BP2100: Fire Protection

BP2200: Plumbing

BP2300: HVAC

BP2600: Turnkey Electrical

BP3100: Turnkey Sitework

BP3290: Landscaping

Packages may be added and/or deleted at the discretion of the Construction Manager. Historically underutilized business firms are encouraged to complete participation submittals.

HUB/MWBE OUTREACH MEETING: Barnhill Building Group will be conducting a HUB/MWBE Informational Session. You are encouraged to attend the following session to learn more about project participation opportunities available to you. These seminars will help to: Learn about project and scope; Inform and train Minority/HUB contractors in preparation for bidding this project; Assist in registration on the State of North Carolina Vendor link; Stimulate opportunities for Networking with other firms. Location and time TBD. Please visit our planroom at https://app.buildingconnected.com/public/54da832ce3edb5050017438b for more information.

Interested contractors should submit their completed prequalification submittals, by July 22, 2024, to Meredith Terrell at mterrell@barnhillcontracting.com or hardcopies can be mailed to Barnhill Contracting Company PO Box 31765 Raleigh, NC 27622 (4325 Pleasant Valley Road, NC 27612).


 



Comments

  • Mike Williams

    Best boats built in NC are built in down east NC ! Trust me

    Wednesday, May 15 @ 7:00 pm
  • 102

    Seems to me that one of the most important persons involved in the boat building industry in dare county was not mentioned in this article. His name is Bobby Sullivan. He was the real deal but he didn’t patent anything, he let everyone use his ideas and designs. Bobby retired out of the coast guard and went fishing and building boats that have the now know as ” Hatteras Sweep”. Best design in the world. Bobby can’t build boats any longer but he taught his sons well and his boat building barn is still workable. Give the man credit for what he did. Bobby built the “Marlin Fever” 1,2.3. Built boats for the “Red Skins” and was insturemtal in getting Oregan Inlet going. And this post if from his Yankee son in law.

    Friday, May 17 @ 5:44 pm