By Mitchell Bateman
If you’ve been involved in the world of offshore sportfishing for more than a week, chances are good that you have heard of Scarborough Boatworks and the man behind some of the finest boats ever built, Ricky Scarborough, Sr. From his first 18- to 25-foot hunting skiffs and work boats, to his last 60- to 85-foot custom-built luxury sportfishing yachts, Ricky’s reputation for quality craftsmanship and ingenuity is well known. The actual number of boats he built is a little fuzzy considering he didn’t keep written records of all the crab boats and hunting skiffs he built for his neighbors and family. With the incorporation of Scarborough Boatworks in 1977, along with better record-keeping, it is probable that the grand total of boats Ricky built was north of 100.
What is less well-known is the way Ricky got to his position in the boat building industry and the factors that shaped his legacy. Ricky realized early in his adult life that he had a God-given talent and skill for boat building and that he could use that to make a living for his family, which was his ultimate motivation. Ricky didn’t use naval architects or engineers to do his design work. Instead, he could “see” shape, form and function in his head and transform that vision into reality with his hands, crafting juniper lumber into the most beautiful and best-riding boats on the water. These skills came naturally to Ricky, and he never sought special praise for his many accomplishments.
An example of this occurred when Ricky Sr. was chosen by the Dare County Boat Builders Foundation as their featured boat builder of the year. Although he was honored, Ricky didn’t really want to go to the event to accept the award. He said at the time, “This kind of award is for people who have died, and I’m still alive and working.” It was only after much encouragement from family and fellow boat builders that Ricky was finally persuaded to attend the ceremony.
Ricky’s intuitiveness also allowed him to see early in his boat building career that the Roanoke Island area’s demand for skiffs and crab boats would likely run out. This was due to the way he could quickly saturate the market with his 18- to 25-foot boats, since he was working in a small industry and place. In 1976 Ricky was 29 years old. Omie Tillett, a locally acclaimed builder of large sportfishing boats, asked Ricky if he would be interested in helping him build a bigger boat that upcoming winter. Ricky quickly signed onto the project.
He readily learned the advanced skills and methods necessary to build these boats and realized that there was more of a market for this type of boat and building them could provide him with a full-time boat building job. Until this point, Ricky had crabbed in the warm weather and guided duck hunters in the early winter then built crab boats in the backyard of his home. That next year Scarborough Boatworks, Inc. was formed and has been in continuous operation ever since.
Ricky Sr. never really cared for offshore sportfishing, but the industry was forever changed by his artisanship. He never worked on the local charter boats with captains and boat builders like Omie Tillett, Warren O’Neal, Sheldon Midgett, Sunny Briggs or Buddy Cannady, all of whom charter fished in the summer and built boats in the winter. He never even held a captain’s license. He built a 35-foot boat for himself and his family and used it mostly in the sounds around his home and the occasional getaway to the Ocracoke Island area. Ricky was an avid crabber and duck hunter. Even in his last year, he mentioned to his wife that one of the things that still excited him was pulling up a crab pot full of crabs.
In his 40+ years of running Scarborough Boatworks, Ricky would only build plank-on-frame boats. As jig boat building came to the industry, he refused to even consider switching. He once called this kind of boat building “paper mache,” remarking that anybody could fasten boards around a frame somebody else designed…
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