The Beauty and Design of the Outer Banks Boatbuilding Industry
There is a lean, graceful look to the custom-built boat. When the Carolina Flare slices through the water the sharp point of its bow arcs gracefully to the deck, which is a distinctive feature of the boats built on the Outer Banks. It’s no accident that these custom watercrafts have become known for high quality and performance.
“The Outer Banks, and particularly Roanoke Island, have a very rich history of boat building,” says John Bayliss, owner of Bayliss Boatworks. “I think all of us who build boats in Dare County are very proud of what we build and their timeless looks and performance.”
The first boats built on the Outer Banks were a simple watercraft called kunners, built by splitting a hollowed-out log, then adding staves for stability and to widen the hull for freight. They were easy to make, durable and performed well in the waters of the Outer Banks sounds. For more than 100 years, they were the boat of choice for Outer Banks watermen—but there was a revolution coming.
George Washington Creef was already considered a master boatbuilder when he moved to Manteo after the Civil War. Legend has it that there was a shortage of logs suitable to make kunners.
There was wood available, though, and Creef created a boat utilizing plank-on-frame construction—sturdy, framed with cedar and using juniper planking. The bow was flared and the beam wide with a curved bottom and tapered stern.
The shad boat, as it was called, was the ideal craft for the shallow waters of the Outer Banks. Fast and maneuverable under sail, its shallow draft allowed it to work close to the shore where other boats would have run aground. With its wide beam, it could handle considerably more cargo than any other boat of its size. The boat quickly became the boat to have from Ocracoke to Currituck. Well-designed and innovative, the boat left its mark, and in 1987 the North Carolina legislature designated the shad boat the state boat.
Creef’s design marked the Outer Banks as a place to come for a new design in boats, but equally as important may have been the influence he had on future boatbuilders. A demanding craftsman, the skills he taught became the basis for the quality workmanship Outer Banks boatbuilders are known for to the present day.
With modifications, the shad boats survived into the 20th century; the original sail power design had to be adjusted for engines. Even with a redesigned stern and frame, the shad boats couldn’t handle the bigger engines that the watermen needed, and the last of the shad boats was built sometime in the 1930s. But a new generation of boat builders was ready to move the Outer Banks' reputation forward.
Warren O’Neal built his first boat, a flat-bottomed skiff, in 1925 at the age of 15. There is no record of him building anything else for some time, but what he did do was to go to college and learn about design.
“Warren was the first man who went to architectural school,” says Sunny Briggs, who owns Briggs Boatworks. Briggs has been building boats for 46 years, and he knew O’Neal and all of the first-generation Outer Banks boatbuilders. “He went to Duke for a year, and he went to University of Chicago," says Briggs. "And he modeled everything. Everything he built he did a scale model.”
O’Neal’s dream of being an architect was ended by the Depression. When he returned to the Outer Banks he worked as a fisherman, shrimping in the off-season and taking charters out in the summer.
Working the waters of the Outer Banks, O’Neal began to think about what a well-designed boat would need. In 1959, he built the Pearl II, the first true Carolina design boat. Named after his wife, the boat replaced the wooden flat-bottomed Pearl I he had built earlier.
The new design featured a deep V-shaped hull, giving the craft superior handling characteristics in the ocean and much better efficiency. The Outer Banks charter and commercial fleet took notice, bought boats from him, and the reputation of O’Neal Boatworks began to spread.
“His boats were well known all over the world,” Briggs says.
O’Neal is considered the godfather of the modern Outer Banks boatbuilding industry. His innovations were a large part of that, but equally as important was his attention to detail, his knowledge and his insistence on quality workmanship.
Briggs learned the craft from the early pioneers like Captain Omie Tillet and Sheldon Midgett. But there was one boatbuilder he never worked for.
“I never would ask Warren [O'Neal] for a job because I didn’t think I was good enough,” Briggs says.
He tells a familiar tale of getting into the boatbuilding business.
“The way it was in the olden days we'd all run charter boats or mated on charter boats. In the winter we had to have something to do. We gravitated to the boat shops. So what would we do in the winter? Talk about what happened last summer,” he says.
Because they spent half of their time on the water, they knew what the boat’s needs were, and the designs began to evolve. “It was a constant looking at each other, talking to each other. Modifying, changing this changing that. It was a learning process,” he adds.
There was one of O’Neal’s workers who really seemed to stand out, and he was the leader of a new breed of builders.
“All of a sudden the young guys were building boats. Buddy Davis was the first one to say, ‘I’m going to branch off and build my own boat,’” Briggs says. Davis, who passed away in 2011, was like no other builder before him. Captain of a charter boat by age 20, in 1973 he opened Davis Boatworks at 25 and built his first boat, a 46-foot craft, using traditional construction methods and materials.
But there was nothing traditional about Davis. Innovative and daring, he was not afraid to take chances. Davis is largely credited with creating the Carolina Flare, with the sharp entry point of the bow of the vessel arcing almost radically to the deck.
In several interviews, Davis discounted recognition being given to him, pointing out that the Flare was a case of tinkering with his mentor Warren O’Neal’s design. Nonetheless, his boats had a distinctly different look than anything anyone else was building … and they outperformed other boats.
“They were amazing,” says Heather Maxwell, the director of Pirate’s Cove Billfish Tournaments. Maxwell worked with Buddy for a number of years. “Buddy’s boats were for rough seas,” she says. “He marketed to the fishermen.”
That Buddy was marketing his boats was also significant, Maxwell adds.
“He was the first one to do marketing. He absolutely put the Outer Banks on the map."
Briggs and Davis were important to the future of custom boatbuilding. They recognized early on that the traditional plank-on-frame construction wouldn’t work as the world moved forward. They were the ones that started using jigs—preformed shapes of the hull that allowed the craft to be constructed upside down. They were also the ones that started using CAD designs for their hulls and synthetics to create the lightest weight, strongest craft possible.
The new generation has taken those traditions and run with it, building bigger, more powerful craft. It is part of a quest to create that sets each vessel apart from any other.
“One of the things we most like about boat building is that it’s constantly evolving as improvements are implemented almost every day,” Bayliss says. “I guess what drives us is the quest to build the perfect boat, and we all know there is no such thing.”
Bayliss is the largest of the Outer Banks boatbuilders, his facility stretching along the Wanchese waterfront. His yachts are-state-of-the art and highly desired, but the future of the custom boatbuilders is not just in high-tech design and material.
Another local boatbuilder, Patrick Harrison graduated from East Carolina University with a degree in woodworking, came back to the Outer Banks to learn from the master boatbuilders and now owns Harrison Boatworks in Wanchese.
“Lofting (part of the design process) and full-scale jigs is the most fun of building boats,” he says. “The way I do it is more antiquated, but that’s what I like.”
Beautifully trimmed in tropical woods, his boats are sleek with the distinctive features of the Carolina Flare, yet keeping a traditional look.
“I like the older lines better,” he says. “It looks a lot like an older O’Neal boat. It’s all in the aesthetics.”