Boat Building – An Important Piece of the Outer Banks Economy
It’s no secret that the Outer Banks economy is dominated by tourism—and it’s been that way for some time. But even though tourism is the engine that drives the local economy, it is of course not the only important local industry.
For over 150 years, the Outer Banks boatbuilders have been an important part of the culture and economy of the area.
They have always been custom boat builders, building each boat to order. The design has evolved over the years, creating a distinctive look that is lean and graceful. Slicing through the water the sharp point of the bow arcs gracefully to the deck in the Carolina Flare that is the distinctive feature of the boats built on the Outer Banks.
The first boats were kunners, simple watercraft created by splitting a hollowed out log, then adding a stave for stability and to widen the hull. Easy to make and durable, for more than 100 years, they were the boat Outer Banks watermen used.
But what we now think of as boatbuilding as a profession began when George Washington Creef moved to Manteo after the Civil War.
As the story goes, there was a shortage of logs suitable to make kunners in the aftermath of the war. Planks and boards were available, though, and Creef created a boat utilizing these materials. His boats were framed with cedar and used juniper planking. The bow was flared, the beam wide with a curved bottom and a tapered stern.
This was the shad boat, the ideal craft for the shallow waters of the Outer Banks. Fast and maneuverable under sail, with a shallow draft, it could work close to shore where other boats would run aground. With its wide beam, it could handle considerably more cargo than any other boat of its size.
Well-designed and innovative, the boat was so significant that in 1987 the North Carolina legislature designated the shad boat as the State Boat.
Although Creef’s design was innovative, his greatest impact may have been in training future boatbuilders.
He was a demanding craftsman, and the skills he taught became the basis for the quality workmanship Outer Banks boatbuilders are known for today.
Although some changes in design helped the shad boat survive into the age of engines, the last of the shad boats was built sometime in the 1930s.
But new materials and a new way of thinking about boat design were coming.
Warren O’Neal hoped to be an architect, but the depression put his dream on hold. Returning to the Outer Banks after two years of college, he started working on the waters…and thinking about boat design.
In 1959, he launched the Pearl II, named after his wife. It was the first true Carolina design boat, featuring 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.
But there was another innovation still to come.
Like Creef, O’Neal demanded attention to detail and quality workmanship, and as boatbuilders trained under him, they started thinking about the evolution of boat design.
One of O’Neal’s workers who really stood out was Buddy Davis. Davis is credited with creating the signature look of the Outer Banks custom boats.
Davis was like no other builder before him. He was captain of a charter boat by age 20, and in 1973, at 25 years of age, he opened Davis Boatworks and built his first boat: a 46-foot craft using traditional construction methods and materials.
But he was always ready to try something new. Innovative and daring, and Davis is largely credited with creating the Carolina Flare—the sharp entry point of the bow arcing almost radically to the deck.
Davis always discounted recognition being given to him, pointing out that the Flare was a case of tinkering with what his mentor, Warren O’Neal’s had done. His boats though, had a distinctive look, and they outperformed other boats.
There were other innovations as well. The builders started using jigs, preformed shapes of the hull that allowed the craft to be constructed upside down. By the 1990s they were using CAD designs for their hulls and synthetics to create the lightest, strongest craft possible.
The waterfront in Wanchese is where most of the boatbuilders are today. Bayliss is the largest of the Outer Banks boatbuilders, his facility stretching along the waterfront, but his is by no means the only one.
There is Blackwell Boatworks and Spencer Yachts. Still in Wanchese but away from the waterfront, Patrick Harrison of Harrison Boatworks has been blending modern building techniques with some traditional materials to create his own look.
Boat building continues to contribute to the local economy and is an important component of our area’s history.