The hull truth

Born of a mill owner’s frustration, Hatteras Yachts builds boats for those willing to pay millions for rugged luxury.

 

New Bern-based Hatteras Yachts began with a frustrated fisherman, an experimental powerboat and a dare. Forty-six years later, it employs about 1,000 people. The company won’t disclose annual sales, saying only that they exceed $100 million, but the 60 to 70 craft it builds each year carry prices that start at about $1 million and can reach as high as $8 million.

It started small. Foul weather in May 1959 beached Willis Slane, a High Point hosiery-mill owner who had come to Cape Hatteras for marlin fishing. Stuck on shore, he fantasized about a boat that could barrel through rough seas in rotten weather. On a recent trip to Florida, he had tested a small powerboat made of fiberglass. Its builder challenged him to try to break it by running at high speed through choppy waters. “I quickly learned that the boat could take far more than I or my passengers could take,” he dryly recalled some years later.

Slane gathered investors, many of them mill men like himself, hired a naval architect from Florida and set to work researching the boating business in a rented building that had once housed a Pontiac dealership. Less than a year after his thwarted fishing trip, the first Hatteras was completed in High Point. The company says no one had used fiberglass to build big boats until he handed his hastily assembled production team plans for a 41-foot sportfisherman with an extra-roomy cabin. He equipped it with a pair of 275-horsepower Lincoln V-8 engines.

The Knit Wits — a playful nod to the business whose profits bankrolled the venture — was completed in March 1960, then trucked and set to sea at Morehead City. Hatteras built its first motor yacht two years later. Slane died 40 years ago, but the Knit Wits, which the company reacquired, is still seaworthy. The business launched with that one custom boat is now part of Lake Forest, Ill.-based Brunswick Corp., a conglomerate once best known for pool tables and bowling alleys. Today, it is a monster in marine products, including boats — Boston Whaler, Bayliner and Sea Ray are among its many brands. In March, Brunswick bought Edenton-based Albemarle Boats.

All Hatteras craft, both motor yachts and sportfishing convertibles, are built in the 680,000-square-foot plant on 92 acres along the Neuse River in New Bern, where the company opened its second factory in 1967. Thirty years later, Hatteras consolidated manufacturing there and closed its High Point plant.

“We typically have 40 to 45 boats in process at any one time,” says Jay Fuller, vice president of manufacturing. Production time varies. “It will be as short as six months or as long as 14 or 15 months, depending on the size of the boat.” The motor yachts range up to 100 feet. “Convertibles are really our core product,” Fuller says. “We build those anywhere from 50 to 86 feet. It’s called a convertible because it’s a fishing boat, but the inside has very high-luxury accommodations and sleeping arrangements.” The boats’ model numbers also are their lengths.

“Right now, our most popular boat is the 68 convertible. If you wanted to buy a 68 right now, you’re probably looking at a delivery in ’07.”