Two years ago my husband Clint waited in line 45 minutes to get on a boat he had been on several times before. The carbon fiber Gunboat sailing catamaran, with its unique central helm station, amazing 360-degree visibility, and minimalist furnishings has an almost cult-like following. Last October we bypassed the long lines and scheduled a tour of the Gunboat 48 with CEO Peter Johnstone. I quickly discovered that under the surface of the sleek lines and the steep price tag is a company dedicated to safety, quality and family. When Gunboat announced the location of their new facility in Wanchese, NC, a tight-knit community once known for building high-quality sportfishing yachts, I knew that this was a marriage made in heaven.
The concept for the Gunboat came to Peter after a miserable trip between Caribbean islands with his wife and two kids, as their 68-foot monohull, built for speed, was being tossed about like a cork. As they were all hanging over the side barfing up their cookies, Peter looked to windward to see a big cruising cat smoothly sailing pass them. He could clearly see people sitting at the cockpit table having a fine meal and a bottle of wine. The boat, occupants and most of all the wine were unaffected by the turbulent seas. Upon his return, Peter began searching for a high-performance cruising catamaran that would carry his family safely from point A to point B with speed and comfort. To his chagrin, there was no such boat on the market. So he built one. In 2001, Johnstone designed Tribe with a unique hull, light displacement, powerful sail plan and the ability to carry his family safely, quickly and with comfort both upwind and down.
The newly incorporated Gunboat International began designing and building their cruising cats at a facility in Cape Town, South Africa. Meanwhile, the small fishing village of Wanchese, NC was becoming a desirable headquarters location for manufacturers of motor yachts and sportfishing boats. The largest employer in Wanchese was Davis Boatworks, employing around 180 and with a payroll of more than $6 million. They were building top quality sportfishing yachts at a price between $750,000 and $2.7 million. In the early 2000s, the Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park was home to over 24 boatbuilders. Business stayed booming until 2006 when companies began to feel the first signs of the impending recession. From 2006-2011, the North Carolina boat building industry lost two-thirds of its employment, leaving a work force of only 770 jobs. Davis Boatworks, along with many of the other thriving businesses in Wanchese, closed their doors leaving only three boat builders in the area today. Well-paid, highly skilled craftsmen were unemployed in one of North Carolina’s hardest hit regions.
The remaining boat builders in the US and abroad began looking at ways to cut costs to stay competitive with the ever-increasing supply and declining price of used boats on the market. During the recession, Peter knew that Gunboat needed to get back to manufacturing a yacht of a suitable size for the owner/operator (and without professional crew). Since their Cape Town yard was suited more for the highly customizable yachts greater than 66 feet, production of the new Gunboat 60 moved to a state-of-the-art facility in China that sported a five-axis router allowing for one-piece tooling. Along with choosing an epoxy infusion method to build the hulls, Gunboat significantly reduced the assembly time of the boats by several months, thereby reducing the overall cost.
While the China facility was ramping up production and demand for the larger, custom yachts was diminishing, Peter made the agonizing decision to close the South Africa yard in July 2011. As labor costs began to steadily rise in China, Peter then decided it was time to bring the manufacturing of the newly designed Gunboat 55 to the United States. The company began in earnest looking for the best facility that had the space needed to build such a large yacht, utilizing the same technology as their China yard. As fate would have it, the old Davis Boatworks facility in Wanchese stood out above all the other sites on the east coast. The large facility was competitively priced, already had a skilled labor force eager to get back to work, and in a business-friendly state that provided financial incentives from the One North Carolina Fund. Peter sensed that this was the right decision to grow the Gunboat brand.
Even before Governor Bev Purdue made the official announcement at the end of January 2012, the phones at Gunboat’s headquarters in Rhode Island were ringing off the hook.
Bob Marston, Sales Manager for Gunboat said, “I was getting 4-5 phone calls per day from people looking for work.”
Craftsmen from the Wanchese/Outerbanks area who had been doing any kind of work they could over the past three to four years were jumping at the opportunity to secure one of the 71 positions being created over the next three years, with 12 immediate openings.
Marston continued, “The most interesting phone calls though were from local business owners in Wanchese simply welcoming us to the area. They were so happy to have us as their new neighbor.”
As I spoke to Yard Manager Phil Harvey about how the transition to the new facility was going, he had nothing but praise for the first 12 employees already onboard.
“We have a good mix of young and old who are eager to get back to making a quality product,” said Phil.
Although they have an average experience level in excess of 20 years building high quality sportfishing yachts, the new hires had little knowledge of Gunboat’s epoxy infusion method.
“The state of North Carolina helped us set up an infusion training class at the local community college,” Harvey said.
Gunboat has converted classrooms, once used by local boat builders, into a special infusion classroom for Gunboat. “While we are preparing the molds for the 55, half of the employees are in training one week while the other half goes the next. It’s been fun to see the older guys come back from school with big smiles on their faces,” Harvey jokes.
Preparing for the beginning of production, the plugs for the Gunboat 55 were sent from Rhode Island to North Carolina where the female molds will be made. A CNC machine by mouldCAM is being used to create a precise female mold. This will be the base for every Gunboat 55 built at the NC facility. The lay-up process follows. The craftsman hand-lay carbon mat material, followed by a Corecell foam core, and then another layer of carbon mat over the female mold. This meticulous process takes approximately three weeks. A form-fitted vacuum bag is then placed over the entire mold. With a vacuum pump attached to one end and a carefully calculated epoxy mixture at the other, the vacuum then sucks the epoxy into the layers of material until everything is completely saturated. Phil explained that the epoxy infusion method requires a bit more epoxy than the previous “pre-preg” method, but the finish allows for less voids, thereby creating an even better quality product than before. This method is also safer for the environment and the employees since the fumes are contained within the vacuum bag. What once took six months to complete has now been reduced to just over three weeks.
In February, I sat down with Bob Marston to review the drawings for the Gunboat 55 (editors note: Terry Boram and her husband Clint are avid multihull sailors, and are seriously considering the purchase of a Gunboat of their own). I was immediately drawn to the main deck, having no bulkheads to divide the space, providing you an uninterrupted airy space for entertaining or simply just kicking back while underway. When the weather turns cold or damp, the aft end seals up easily with a semi-rigid enclosure. The other noticeable change to the design was the wave-piercing bow, which minimizes pitching, allowing the boat to stay flatter and therefore more stable in heavier sea conditions. This, coupled with the centralized helm station where all sail handling leads, has added another level of safety for the owner/operator. The new facility in Wanchese also allows for customers to semi-customize their boat. It currently has three different layout options available and a fourth option is already on the drawing board. Additionally, with Gunboat outsourcing the interior and many of the carbon fiber parts, Marston explained that I could design a boat that best worked for us.
Gunboat selected Zepsa Industry Incorporated, a 30-year-old family owned and operated company in Charlotte, NC to do the joinery throughout the boat. Using honey-combed construction throughout the interior, Gunboat is able to maintain its performance requirements while enhancing the integrity of the structure. The European roots of Zepsa bode well with the minimalist, refined lines inside the Gunboat.
In addition to producing the Gunboat 55, the new North Carolina facility will also be manufacturing the PURE carbon fiber rigid inflatables (RIBs). The deep-V hull design was originally built for the US Navy by Whitey Russell and his Atlantic RIB Company (ARC). The ARC, as it was previously known, became a favorite of yacht clubs, habormasters and high-end yacht owners around the world. Peter bought the hull molds from ARC and with an update to the deck design and a high-tech approach to composites launched the PURE 730. Today the PURE 460 is the standard RIB for Gunboat, Oyster and Swan yachts. Once the molds arrive in North Carolina, production will begin on the new 975. A future gelcoat version of the PURE design is already being developed for wider commercial use.
As part of the financial incentive given to Gunboat, the state also agreed to widen the existing boat ramp behind the new facility in order to handle the wider beams of the Gunboat fleet. A hydraulic trailer is used to lift the boat under the bridge deck and drive it around to the yard. Bob Marston said that he is already fielding calls from larger catamaran owners asking if the lift would be available for their future haul outs. He explained that, “Right now plans are to create a Gunboat service center for our entire fleet.”
The town of Wanchese has embraced the Gunboat family with open arms. Phil Harvey and his wife Lauren and Peter Johnstone and his family have already moved to the area. Just as Peter welcomes new boat owners into the Gunboat family, keeping in touch with them wherever they may be cruising in the world, the people of Wanchese have opened up their hearts and welcomed Gunboat into their family. With the plans Gunboat already has on the drawing board, I can see this marriage lasting long into the future.