There seems to be no end to the boat building talent in Wanchese, North Carolina. Ritchie Howell stands as a fine example of a man that has mastered the fine art of crafting custom, sportfishing machines. Like many others in this area, he learned about boats by using them every day as a hook and line commercial tuna fisherman.
“I fished alongside Paul Spencer and we would always push each other to make the day. We would joke around about quitting all this one day and building boats,” says Howell. “One day, Paul said, ‘I’m going to do it. I’ve got a contract on my boat; I’m going to sell it and put up a boat shop and build a boat.’ So that’s what we did, we built him a boat.”
“We got about three-quarters of the way through the build and the boat sold. That was the Biopsy. Well, since I had put some money into the jig and the building with Paul, the next boat was mine…so we started my boat. I was still charter fishing at the time and my motor blew up. So, I sold that boat rather quickly. That was the Anticipation.”
“After that Paul was all-in and wanted to big,” says Howell. “But I wasn’t ready for that yet. To build one or two at a time was one thing, but I wasn’t ready for 15 at time. Paul offered to buy my piece of the jig and the building and I agreed. He bought me out and we went our separate ways.” But of course, that wasn’t the end of the story.
“I had a trip one day in the Fall, and as I backed into my slip, I saw Paul sitting there in his truck,” says Howell. “As soon as my people hopped off, Paul hopped on. He said ‘I’ve got about five people ready to build a boat right now. I know you have the money to put up a building because I just bought you out. You need to put up a building and do this. You know what you are going to get if you stay here charter fishing…you are going to starve to death.’ He was right. He really talked me into doing my own thing. That’s when I put up the building.”
With a building going up, but no boat on the horizon, Howell continued fishing and on one tournament trip up to New Jersey, he got lucky.
“On the ferry ride home, I met a guy who said he always wanted a Carolina boat, and we just started to talking,” says Howell. “I told him how I just started building a boat shop without a boat to build… and that’s how it all went down. Crazy, right?” “We started in 2000 and the boat was originally called the TFB, a 65-footer,” says Howell. “I’ve got a list of all the things those letters could possibly stand for…but I think I’ll just leave it up to everybody’s imagination. Most of them you probably couldn’t put into a magazine article anyway.”
“I remember on that first one I would lose sleep at night, worry about what was coming down the pike and what we had to do. I used to sweat it big time,” says Howell. “Not anymore…I sleep like a baby. I like to look at the plans and figure out how we are going to attack certain aspects of the build. I’m much more relaxed about it than I used to be.”
With his 32nd boat, a 61-footer, about to come out of the shed, Howell says that there are pretty dramatic differences between hull number 1 and the boats he puts out today. “Our shape has actually changed drastically. It’s pretty much night and day from what we build now compared to back then…there’s nothing remotely similar between the two. Now, everything is computer generated and engineered to the nines. Our first one was a hand-drawn…we cut it by hand.
“That’s a great way to learn about boat building, but you can’t compete with a computer. We have lofted our own boats in the past, if we didn’t have time to get a jig cut or somebody was looking for a bargain basement deal, but you have to use a computer-generated jig now. What we do is a lot more exacting than it used to be. I used to think, ‘If someone would just give me a million dollars, oh man the boat I could build!’ Nowadays a million doesn’t even scratch the surface…it’s just way it’s gotten to be.”
“When I think, and look back at the first boat, I want to look at it with a critical eye…and see how I’d want to change it. If I had to do it over again today it would be a different animal! Those old boats are beautiful with their classic lines and all that stuff, but you have to be a bit more progressive nowadays.”
When asked about what makes Ritchie Howell boats stand out from the crowd, Howell says that,
“I know it sounds weird, but I’m more of a boutique boat builder. I’m not trying to build a bunch of boats at one time. I just want to build one or two boats. The biggest difference here is, if someone calls and wants to know if their oil change pump is installed, I know. I don’t have to call a foreman or whatever. There is a one-on-one relationship with the people I’m building the boat for.” “I also believe that for the quality of product we put out, we are very value-based. I’m not saying I’m cheap, because I’m not…Nothing in this business is cheap. But you do get a lot of bang for your buck here. We don’t have a real fancy facility but it’s really all you need for boatbuilding. I also don’t have a lot of the overhead that other guys have.”
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