Palmetto state boat builders grow through innovation

Freeman Boatworks has a two-year waiting list for its performance fishing catamarans.

During the recent Charleston Boat Show, a local dealer looking out over the sea of boats at the Charleston Area Convention Center remarked to a manufacturer’s representative that all of the boats were alike.

The generalization wasn’t meant to demean the lack of creativity but to show that South Carolina boat manufacturers have come to the conclusion that the majority of their customers are families that like to both fish and play on the water.

Center console boats, both shallow-draft bay boats and deep-vee hulls meant to ride more comfortably in rougher seas, in the 18- to 25-foot range dominate the industry. The cockpit, or area aft of the center console, is designed for fishing and often includes tackle stations, live wells and other fishing amenities. Forward of the console you’re likely to find padded seating designed for comfortable cruising as you head out on weekends to the beach or a sandbar to enjoy playing with the kids.

But manufacturers also realize you cannot remain stagnant and succeed in the highly competitive boat building business. These are a few innovative ideas that are catching the attention of those interested in buying a boat.

SCOUT BOATS

Granted, the market is limited, but one of the most talked-about displays at the Charleston Boat Show was Scout Boat’s 420 LXF, a 42-foot center console model with quadruple 350-horsepower Yamaha outboards that rigged out totaled more than $1 million.

“Over the last 6, 7, 8 years we’ve done well with some of our center consoles ... being a tender (support boat) for the megayachts,” said Scout Boats founder and CEO Steve Potts. “The Scout brand is one of the most sought-after brands for that world. All the owners and crews know each other and word travels. That is partially what led us to develop the 42.”

Potts said the 420 LXF complements the company’s 350 LXF (35-feet) which is still in high demand. The Summerville-based company recently built a third plant that will build the 420s, 350s and also a 38-footer that will be unveiled later this year.

“We’re sold out for the most part for a year (for the 420 LXF),” Potts said, adding that plans call for building 18 of the 420 LXFs this year. Pricing starts at $760,000 but quickly climbs when you begin checking off options that include such luxuries as joystick steering, gyro stabilizers and custom engine colors.

The 420 LXF displayed at the Charleston Boat Show could reach the mid-60 mph range but Potts noted that the company is building one for a customer with quadruple 400-horsepower outboards that will travel in the low 70s.

In February, the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association presented Scout with its 2016 Innovation Award for the 420 LXF’s 5 N 1 Performance Leaning Post. The 5 N 1 has room for five forward-facing crew members, and an aft-facing sixth seat ideal for sportfishing. This sixth seat is bookended by a sink and tackle compartments, and can fold down to allow room for the spring loaded sliding pop-out grill.

FREEMAN BOATWORKS

Billy Freeman, the founder of Freeman Boatworks on James Island, is a hard-core offshore fisherman with a passion for catamaran-style fishing boats, just not the ones that were being marketed.

Catamaran hull fishing boats have inherent pluses and minuses. They offer lots of space relative to length and generally ride better than mono hulls. But their handling is markedly different.

Freeman thought he could build a better cat hull, so in May 2007 he took a leap of faith to chase his dream. To say he succeeded is an understatement. If you want to purchase one of the highly-sought Freeman fishing machines, you have to be prepared to wait two years.

The company currently offers 29-, 34- and 37-foot models and later this year will bring out a 42-footer, which had eight orders before it was even announced. The 29s are rated for up to 600 horsepower while the 37s are rated at 1,200 horsepower.

The Freemans are hard-core fishing machines that particularly appeal to those who have to make long runs and don’t want to get beat up for their efforts.

“My initial goal wasn’t to take on the other ‘cat’ builders. My goal was to take on the bigger, hard-core fishing boats,” Freeman said, speaking of the larger, mono-hull fishing boats. “Nobody was building a boat that could compete with them, but I knew the design could if it was done right and we’ve done it.”

CAST AND BLAST BOATS

Much like Freeman, Brooks Oswald decided the best way to get the boat he wanted to chase redfish in Charleston Harbor one day and hunt ducks in the ACE Basin the next day was to build it himself.

Four years ago Oswald, whose family has been in the marine propeller business on James Island for decades, built the first Cast and Blast. Today his small shop has trouble meeting the demand for the company’s 17-foot center console, although plans are in the works for a 21-foot bay boat. Cast and Blast has dealers in Florida, Alabama and North Carolina as well as here in Charleston. The all-welded aluminum flats skiff is built out of 1/8-inch metal, weighs 650 pounds and drafts from 5 to 7 inches.

“When I started building this boat I built it out of everybody else’s mistakes,” said Oswald, referring to all the repair work he had done on jon boats. “I tried to build the strongest little boat I could build.”

Paul Speights, who helps market the boat, said his longtime friend has built a boat that has a soft, dry and stable ride and at the same time overcame the common complaint of flats fishermen that aluminum boats have too much hull slap. Speights said the Cast and Blast performs like a technical poling skiff.

SEA HUNT

At first glance, most of the boats in the Columbia-based Sea Hunt Boat Company are very much like those of other South Carolina manufacturers of center console family boats.

But all of the company’s Gamefish (25 to 30 feet) series, and the 235 Escape and Ultra are equipped with a side entry door that originally was designed for divers but has won over the recreational crowd and is now being featured by several manufacturers.

“It’s been a strong selling feature. It’s opened up some markets that would not have been there,” said Sea Hunt vice president Joel Moss. “When you pull up to a floating dock (in most boats) you have to step on the gunwale and then step over. Our door opens and you can step right on the dock.”

Moss said he receives several calls a year from disabled veterans who praise the feature. TL