Luxury on the Swells: Hatteras Yachts and Other Stories

Hatteras Yachts
Photos courtesy of Hatteras Yachts

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.

Hatteras Yachts
Willis Slane, founder of Hatteras

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.

Hatteras Yachts
The Legend: Hatteras’ original Knit Wit

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.

Caison Yachts
After Donnie Caison’s first boatbuilding endeavor resulted in the 37-footer of his dreams, he was inspired to take on a couple freelance projects. This weekend hobby eventually got too big for the weekends, and today occupies a 12,000 square foot facility with dedicated construction crew. This Hampstead boatbuilder classes up the southern coast like no other.
Winter Custom Yachts
The folks at Winter Custom Yachts insist on getting to know their clients. They want to know how each person spends his or her time on the water. Using only the best Marine grade materials, the Winter team constructs precisely the boat the customer is envisioning.
Blackwell Boatworks
Blackwell Boatworks’ Craig Blackwell has been building boats since the age of sixteen, and his own company has been churning out some of the most beautiful lightweight hulls in the NC sounds for the last 25 years. From the simple charter boat to elaborate yacht, Blackwell boats have quickly established themselves as some of the premier sportfishing vessels in the Roanoke region.
Scarborough Boatworks
The small village of Wanchese is full of fishing families, but none are as old or as excellent at boatbuilding as the Scarboroughs. For founder Ricky Scarborough, boating was more than a hobby, it was a way of life. Back in ‘77, Scarborough needed a boat for fishing commercially but couldn’t quite afford a worthy vessel, so this fisherman-from-birth did the only thing that made sense to him: He built his own, and spawned a business now nearly 40 years running. His son, Ricky Jr., continues the legacy, employing CNC router parts and lightweight composite cores in 2 distinct building styles.
Paul Mann Custom Boats
From its location in Manns Harbor, NC, the large  Paul Mann Custom Boats brand quietly churns out only three boats at a time, allowing for exceptional quality control and personal oversight by founder Paul Mann himself. Combining their experiences both in the boat and in the boatbuilding industry, Paul builds and his wife Robin manages. These daringly light but tough Carolina wood vessels excel in even the worst head-sea conditions.
Shearline Boatworks
The Shearline team spends nearly a year on every yacht that bears its name. Surprisingly, considering their 15 years of success, Shearline has never taken out a single ad: King’s philosophy is that, if they set out to “build the best boat available on the market, people will come.” This is a group of boatbuilders building for themselves as much as they’re building for other people. Owner Chip King and his team are committed to the process because they’re ensuring every boat commissioned is a boat they themselves would want to take out.
Chaos Boats
The people behind Chaos Boats believe that function follows form as much as form follows function: The Carolina bow flare is both sleekly attractive and functionally vital as spray deflector and oversized bow casting area. Curiously located in the landlocked town of Bladenboro, North Carolina, this building company is headed up by Marc and Heather Vickers, a couple of Florida transplants who’ve found their boatbuilding niche in the heart of Carolina.
Harrison Boatworks
Boatbuilding is always born of some kind of passion for the water beneath the craft, but in the case of Harrison Boatworks, it was born of a passion for the material of the craft itself. Woodworker Patrick Harrison, along with mechanical engineer Bob Vicek, make up a relatively young company out of Wanchese offering incredible craftsmanship in both new constructions and total refits.
Albemarle: The Carolina Classic
The Albemarle Sportfishing Boats and Carolina Classic brands understand that, oftentimes, two lines in the water are better than one. They share a point of origin in Edenton, North Carolina, they each began as family businesses, and they now make up a single company christened Albemarle: The Carolina Classic. The swoosh of the Albemarle “A” and the Classic fishhook “C” are joined, and each brand’s respective yachts are raising fish and braving nasty weather more efficiently than ever. They’re harnessing their combined sixty years in the marine industry, seasoned boatbuilding talent, and feedback from owners of over 3,600 hulls built to help define the future of Carolina boats.
Hatteras Yachts
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