By Nichole Osinski
Craig Blackwell didn’t grow up on the East Coast where so many famous sportfishing boats have been designed and built to later dominate tournaments worldwide. The Blackwell Boatworks founder instead spent his early years in Michigan along the chilly waters off Lake Huron. However, some individuals are simply meant to live that offshore life.
“My dad used to drag me to all the boat yards because he loved boats,” Blackwell recalls. “I just liked boats, I liked the water. I fished when I was a little kid, but I really wanted to build a boat and sail around the world. That was my goal as a young man.”
With a boat building passion, Blackwell set about finding ways to get into the boat building world. At the age of 16, he started work with the Gougeon Brothers, the creators of the West System Resin, an epoxy resin that was new for the time but well-known throughout the sportfishing world today. Blackwell worked there for about five years, focusing on sailboat building and learning the ins and outs of lightweight, strong wood and composite construction.
He then moved to Florida to work at Monterey Marine, which eventually became the American Yacht Company, working there for about a year and a half. Then in 1980 Buddy Davis hired the young man to come work for him in North Carolina. “He was building what’s called a frame boat, and he wanted to build a jig boat, so he hired me to set that up for him. I eventually ended up building all his jig boats and he switched to fiberglass after that.”
Blackwell Goes His Own Way
Six years later in 1986, Blackwell decided it was time to go into business for himself, something he’d dreamed of doing for a long time.
“Working for other people is a lot less stressful, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to work for myself and be independent, so I did repair work for a number of years before I started building boats.”
The repair work mainly centered around commercial vessels and sport boats, since that was what was predominantly being built in the area. And it was the repair work that led to hull number one.
Blackwell was brought on by Sportsman Boatworks to build a 54-foot sportfisher for them. It was during that project that the company went bankrupt.
“The owner of the boat asked me to finish it for him, and I said yes. Consequently, that’s where it started,” Blackwell reminisces. “I didn’t really have a plan. When the guy came to me to finish the boat I didn’t have a building, didn’t have money, didn’t even have the tools. All of a sudden, I had a boat to finish and had to find a building to put it in.”
The First Build
He quickly found an available building in Manns Harbor and started his first build. The hull had been laid out by Sportsman, but with Craig taking over the project, everything from the deck up would be his. For this boat, which would have a home port in Puerto Rico, the owner already knew what he wanted.
The cold molded boat, which would be named Evelyn, would consist of a 20kw generator, three staterooms, two heads, teak interior and a pair of 1000 hp MAN diesel engines.
When building the boat, Blackwell took his experience from the Gougeon Brothers and Buddy Davis and applied this to the project as well as future builds.
“The idea of building over a jig with plywood was something that I brought into the area,” he says. “I learned this up in Michigan. The Gougeon Brothers, they were innovators. Buddy Davis was also a unique individual and very much an innovator himself; there was no obstacle too big. It was a neat experience to work for him.”
But going from sail to power meant the building stresses would be completely different.
Work had started on the boat in 1989, and Blackwell estimates he worked on that build project at least 12 hours a day.
And due to the owner-to-be living in Puerto Rico, all communication had to be done over the phone. Because the new owner only spoke Spanish, and Craig did not, a bilingual friend would also have to be on these calls to translate. The three-way calls would take place around 9 p.m. every night except for weekends.
“During these conference calls, they wanted to know what was going on, and we would send pictures of the boat updates as things progressed, which is something we still do today.”
Finally, in 1990, Evelyn was ready for the water.
“It’s kind of unusual, you get on something that you built, you put it in the water, and you can hear the noise of the water on the hull, it’s a unique experience when you sit there and look at it and think, ‘I put this thing together,’ ’cause it starts out as just a drawing on a piece of paper,” Blackwell says. “It still amazes me when you sit on a boat you put together.”
With the completion of Evelyn, Craig Blackwell’s boat building dream had finally become reality.
The Solivia Rose
The boat was sent to Puerto Rico, where it lived until she was sold to Freddy Ippolito in 2014. Evelyn was renamed Solivia Rose, and before being put out on the water in her new home in Montauk, New York, she once again was in Craig Blackwell’s hands for refit work. She stayed in the boat yard for the better part of a year having new electronics put in, getting the addition of a mezzanine and a green stick installed among other updates. Now on the East Coast, the Solivia Rose and her crew would spend time tuna fishing and getting competitive in tournaments.
“The ride on that was something else. It was probably one of the driest boats I’ve ever been on. The boat had a very sharp entry so it was pretty amazing in a head sea,” Ippolito says.
Ippolito had the boat for four years before selling her to a man in Texas. She recently changed hands again, and Ippolito believes she is somewhere still on the east coast. But wherever the 54-footer may be cruising, one thing is certain: she paved the way for a whole generation of Blackwell-made boats.
After finishing hull number one, Blackwell kept building, starting with another 54-footer followed again by a third 54-footer. “It just kind of snowballed after that,” he says.
Blackwell estimates that his company has built around 80 boats since then, including the 50′ convertible they reported to InTheBite last year. Despite the long hours in the shop, he says the most difficult challenge he has faced as a boat builder has simply been learning to become a businessman.
“You can be very good as a builder but if you don’t get the other part right, you don’t survive,” he says. “Working for yourself you have to hit the ground running.”
And in an ironic twist, starting a boat building company has also, in a sense, taken Blackwell on that round-the-world trip. His boats have been built for owners around the globe, from North Carolina to Dubai. So what then are his thoughts when thinking about his journey into the boat-building world and the legacy hull number one left behind?
“I think one of the best parts was getting to know the people we built for; sometimes that’s just as fun as building the boat itself,” Blackwell says. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is patience, slow down, slow down and family is much more important than making money.”