Carolina seafarers and their vessels are in a league of their own. They always have been, because the state’s heritage won’t let them be anything else. The Official State Historic Boat of North Carolina is the shad boat, a vessel invented in Roanoke Island at the close of the Civil War. In the latter half of the 19th century, an increase in fishing and a lack of suitable wood for periaugers (log-boats) necessitated a different kind of strong, shallow-draft workboat. The shad was a technology born of necessity, and remains a testament to both the unwavering ingenuity of the Carolina boatmaker and the enterprising perseverance of the fisherman.
Just as a good deal of our state’s coastal cities and towns owe their economic development to these two trades, a great many of their inhabitants owe their day-to-day contentment to fishing as a sport. North Carolina boatbuilding, an industry concerned with and precipitated by the fishing industry, has spent two hundred years charting a course from livelihood to luxury: Fishing is and will always remain a viable commerce in the Carolina sounds, but yacht building—the custom construction of handmade luxury craft—is nowadays a business in its own right, thanks to the innovative minds within the industry and the sportfishermen who demand the perfect sporting and leisure experience on the water. Every yacht in the state is a work of naval art, every builder an artist deserving some laud. From some of the oldest legacies to the newest little boat shops, these are the most impressive names in Carolina luxury boatbuilding today—beginning with the most renowned.
The Hatteras Story
It couldn’t be done. A fiberglass hull of that size wouldn’t hold up, the traditional boatmakers insisted. In summer 1961, a photo surfaced of one of the nation’s first fiberglass yachts floating defiantly intact in the wreckage of Hurricane Carla. Across the back of this vessel stretched the name “Hatteras,” silencing the skeptics for good. Willis Slane’s fiberglass luxury fishing boats were here to stay.
As a boy, Willis Howard Slane, Jr. had a Charles Lindbergh-induced obsession with flying. As a man, he built the best damned boat company in the Carolinas. His love of the sky found an outlet in the Second World War’s Army Air Corps. His love of the water and the resulting creative outlet of boatbuilding would be short-lived, but his legacy wouldn’t.
Second Lieutenant Slane’s honorable discharge in 1945 found him back at his family’s hosiery mill in his hometown of High Point, but the sportsman in Willis couldn’t resist regular trips out on the churning waters off of Cape Hatteras. It was there, where the southbound Labrador Current and the northbound Gulf Stream grind together, that the real objects of Willie Slane’s passion thronged — the marlin. Willis began to invest himself in boatmaking because he just wanted boat strong enough to “tame those waters.” Wood wasn’t sturdy enough for his desired vessel, but he relished the skilled furniture craftsmen in his hometown. So he started building his hull out of fiberglass…in the middle of the Piedmont.
Slane’s innovation was criticized until his boats hit the Hatteras waves, their hulls slicing through that tumult of water dauntlessly, like none had before. Carolina fishermen swooned, and a company was incorporated. Willis would only briefly witness those swells of success, due to a tragic heart attack in ’65. Throughout his five years in the luxury yacht industry, he laid the foundation for a fiberglass empire: Willis Slane’s business sensibilities and adventuring spirit melded together like those warm and frigid waters, buoying his hobby-turned-business and creating a boatbuilding juggernaut.
Now, Hatteras Yachts is one of the oldest boatbuilders on the water, and there’s been nothing but an increase in quality since the company’s inception over 55 years ago. In the words of current Lead Designer Cullen Moser, their “designs reflect who the owner is today, and where they intend to take their yachts tomorrow.” They’ve been accused of obsession with minutia, of “over-engineering” every detail, but like Willis, they understand that this is the only way to build a yacht: The waters off of that eponymous cape are tough teachers. Since Willis Slane’s first Knit Wit, the 40-foot fiberglass yacht that revolutionized the industry, Hatteras has proven time and again that their boats are the very definition of luxury on the water.