By Nichole Osinski
As a boat builder, it’s a true testament to how far you’ve come when your first build was constructed off a state highway in your buddy’s lawn and you’re now building tournament-winning yachts found up and down coastlines. But that’s exactly the road that led Mark Willis of Willis Custom Yachts to where he is today.
A Boy Dreams of a Boat
Interested in boat building at an early age, Willis dreamed of building and chartering his own boat one day. As a young boy, he would watch his grandfather build small skiffs in his carpentry shop that he’d set up in the garage. When they weren’t in the at-home shop Willis and his grandfather would visit some of the local boat builders.
“My grandfather had built some small boats in his lifetime; he was always working with his hands, so I guess genetically it might have been there somewhere,” Willis says. “I was just curious; he would take me to visit some of the local boat shops in Rhode Island. I was always intrigued with the smell of the fresh-cut wood and the shavings on the floor, because this predates fiberglass, I guess that all stuck with me.”
Willis grew up along the waters of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and had his captain’s license at the age of 19. After graduation, he answered an ad in the National Fisherman and landed a job in Ft. Pierce, Florida, where he worked on fishing charters. He would spend the winters in the south sailfishing a full-time charter job then head to North Carolina for the summer season. “That created a year-round cycle for me that I did for several years,” Willis recalls. However, that passion for boat building was still there. In the early 80s, Willis made the leap and decided he’d build his first boat.
Willis Learns the Trade
“My life took a left where I ended up as a boat builder rather than a fisherman,” he says. He began building what would be a 30-footer in 1982, complete with gasoline inboard engine, in hopes of using her as a charter boat out of Hatteras or Ocracoke Inlet. Construction on the boat was started with funds from Willis’ own pocket and with help from his previous boat captain, Emory Dillon, a sportfishing pioneer in his own right.
“It ended up being a self-taught thing,” says Willis, who believes he couldn’t have been more than 26 years old at the time of the build. “I tried to jump in and read as many publications and as many books as I could on yacht design and as much information as I could possibly absorb. I took it in like a sponge.”
At first, it was just Willis working on the boat. Further into the build, he took on a partner, Buddy Smith, a peach farmer from South Carolina who also happened to be an accomplished carpenter with an extensive resume of homes he’d built. He and Willis eventually became partners in boat building, and Smith never did go back to peach farming.
“We got up and just worked every day, and as I remember, we worked weekends; I didn’t know any better,” Willis says. “We were both passionate about it, we liked it and it was all new to us so we were enthusiastic, we kept a pretty feverish pace trying to get that thing done.”
Willis Meets Woody Outlaw
In that day, Willis’ boat shop was just a pole barn situated in Capt. Emory’s front yard on the side of highway 12 in Frisco, North Carolina. And there was a sandwich shop right beside it where all the locals ate. If anyone wanted to see the new boat taking shape, all they had to do was walk over and through the open barn doors.
It happened to be at this location, about six months into the build that the first Willis Yachts buyer stopped by. Cap. Woody Outlaw doesn’t remember the exact reason he stopped by that day, but he knows he had to pass the shop to get to Hatteras. It could have been to grab lunch, or maybe he’d heard about the boat through word of mouth; either way, when he saw what Mark Willis was working on, he knew that he wanted that boat for his charter business, stating that he “liked the way they were putting her together.”
“I worked in boat yards in California,” says Woody, who is from Wanchese. “It was my dream to move home and run charters.”
The two men agreed on a price, and the rest of the build continued, now with a new owner ready to take that first hull on the water. Outlaw made frequent trips to the shop, and around six months later, hull number one was complete and given the appropriate name of Outlaw.
“Those are the days that I’ll never forget,” Willis says. “It was that very first romance of having built something, and driving it for the first time is a pretty awesome feeling. I don’t think that’s ever gone away. We look forward to our sea trials of a new build to this day.”
Trial and Error
However, that first boat became a learning experience for the new boat builders, and Willis remembers having a lot of problems come up. And as exciting as it was to run that boat on its own bottom for the first time, there were still things that needed to be smoothed out. But it was running into these road bumps that prepared him for the future.
“Going from nothing to being a boat builder, it goes beyond the carpentry … it’s electrical, it’s mechanical, it’s the paint, it’s all of those skills you have to learn, and I had to learn all of those skills. I had none of those skills; it was all trial by fire,” Willis says, adding that he’s “never lost the humility of having those early failures. Failure is right around the corner if you let it, so you have to be diligent to make sure every box is checked, every i is dotted and every t is crossed.”
When Outlaw was finally ready for the water, Capt. Woody took her to her new home in Ocracoke, where he’s chartered out of for about 25 years.
“That was the first real boat that I ever had other than skiffs,” the retired captain recalls. He remembers the Outlaw as being “down a little bit too much” and not having a lot of cockpit room because the console took up much of the deck area but that “she was a good sea boat … she was in the good riding mode all the time at cruising speed.”
Building Boats Again
And while Capt. Woody was out on the Outlaw fishing charters, Willis was jumping right back into boat building.
“I thought, ok, well if I can sell this boat and make a little bit of money, then I can build a little nicer boat,” Willis says thinking back on the Outlaw build. “Of course that never materialized, he (Capt. Woody) bought the boat, and that led to a second boat project, and I never did end up with a boat for myself, and that was 40 years ago. I’ve never been without a boat to build, and I still don’t own my own boat, laughably.”
Willis’ second build was a contracted 57-foot boat, which became the Citation. It lived many years as a charter boat out of Hatteras. And the boats simply kept getting built. With several decades between that first build and now, Willis says he never really thought that boat building would become what it is for him today. And looking even further back, to when a young boy watched his grandfather build his own boats in a garage workshop, it’s no doubt that passion for building boats is just as strong as ever.
“I was fairly young when he passed, so he never had the opportunity to see the direction that my career had taken,” Willis says. “But that influence from hanging out with him as a young boy was always there.”
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