Local News

Harkers Island Boat Builder Sails With the Best

Posted July 19, 1999

— The boat building business is booming in North Carolina. More than 75 boat builders are constructing all sorts of vessels from small skiffs to luxury yachts.

There is one boat builder along the coast who stands alone in his approach to the business.

In the shadow ofCape Lookout, under a canopy of live oak, Clarence Willis practices a dying craft. He is building a boat, a trawler for a commercial fisherman, by hand.

Willis has heard the word many times, the one word people say when they first drive up and see his creations.

"Their first word is 'Wow. What a boat,'" said Willis.

But to Willis, it's just a job to make a living.

He has been doing it since he was 13 years old, and he is 68 now. He has never spent a dime on advertising, and he has never had to. The word gets around when you are as good as Willis.

He says he learned his craft from the master, the legendary Brady Lewis of Harkers Island.

"Everybody that builds thinks theirs is the best, but they're all good," said Willis.

How good does Willis think he is?

"I'm as good as the best, put it that way. She may not look like that one or the other one, but she is built good," explained Willis.

Harkers Island is home to three full-time boat builders. You will not find any big corporations here. These are small, family operations.

They build their boats in their own backyards, and they build them one at a time.

People used to go to Harkers Island to buy a boat because they could get it cheaper here than any place else. That is changing.

Most of the builders now concentrate on expensive pleasure boats that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But not Willis. He still makes the wooden work boats.

Look underneath one of his boats and you see a jungle of juniper, the rot-resistant wood used by boat builders for centuries. Today, most boat builders use fiberglass. Not Willis.

"I don't like fiberglass because it's dirty. You sand it, and it gets all over you, and it eats you up, and you itch all the time," said Willis.

The wood itself is enough of a challenge. Willis wrestles to make it fit the curves and angles of his design.

"One side of the boat will work perfect, and the other side will work just as hard against you as it can work," explained Willis.

Willis says it takes a lot of things to be a boat builder: perseverance, patience and precision to name a few. Most of all, Willis says it takes hard work.

"I think the most joy is when 4 o'clock comes, and I knock off and go to the house," said Willis.

Willis says a dedicated boat builder never needs a lullaby at night to go to sleep.


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