The underappreciated Mark Twain Boats, plus the fishing influence of Stratos, Javelin, Wahoo!, Fisher, Spectrum, and Blue Fin
In my over forty years in the pleasure boat industry, there have been literally thousands of boat companies and brand names of boats in North America.
Some of these were and are strictly regional brands not known or recognized in the rest of the continent but many were national and even international brands known to most of us diehard boaters.
It is those well known and recognized brands that are no longer with us that I look forward to examining in this series.
These brand names may still be corporately held in reserve but are not known to currently be in production.
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In this the final article in this series, I want to start by remembering some of the dedicated fishing machines that were once so popular and so talked about. It was all too common to argue over which were the best to catch the lunkers we all dreamed about.
Let’s start with Stratos. Earl Bentz practically grew up on the water working in his uncle’s marina in South Carolina. At age 14 he drove in his first boat race, and at 16 joined Mercury Marine’s indomitable racing team in 1973 with famous teammates Bill Seebold and Reggie Fountain. He won nine National and two World Championships and retired from racing in 1981.
In 1975 he started working at Hydra-Sports, eventually in almost all aspects of boat manufacture and marketing. In 1983, once his racing was over, he left Hydra-Sports and started Stratos Boats. He built Stratos into an internationally recognized and respected brand and sold it to OMC in 1986 and became head of the OMC Fishing Boat Group. He then, with OMC, quickly started Javelin boats in 1987 with manufacturing for both brands in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, southeast of Nashville.
In 1989, Javelin offered 10 models of single and dual console bass boats, as well as fish & ski combination boats from sixteen to twenty feet16-22 feet. By contrast, in the same year Stratos offered almost double the number of models from the same 16-20 feet. Stratos was considered the more upscale of the two brands and with more standard equipment.
The OMC bankruptcy in 2000 saw Genmar Holdings take over Stratos and Javelin. Shortly after this takeover, in 2002 Genmar also purchased Champion Boats, a company started in Mountain Home, Arkansas in the mid-70's offering comparable size and type of fast fishing models. Champion production was moved in with Stratos and Javelin in Tennessee. The Javelin name was gradually phased out.
Following the Genmar bankruptcy in 2009, Platinum Equity Holdings acquired Ranger, Stratos, and Champion, and shut down the Tennessee facility and moved production to the Ranger facilities in Flippin, Arkansas. In 2010, Platinum also acquired the fiberglass portion of Triton Boats from Brunswick Corp. and phased out the Champion name. Platinum Equity sold its Fishing Holdings to Bass Pro Group in 2015 which phased out Stratos production within a few years.
But just to close the loop on the above, following the sale of Stratos to OMC, Earl Bentz remained in charge of OMC’s Fishing Boat group until he became frustrated within such a large corporation. In 1996, he finally left and founded Triton Boats in Ashland City, Tennessee specializing in upscale freshwater and saltwater fishing machines. They rapidly excelled in the marketplace.
In 2001, Triton opened an aluminum boat facility in Aberdeen, Mississippi and in 2005, Bentz sold it all to Brunswick Corporation. Bentz continued with Brunswick to serve as head of Triton’s operations. In 2018, Bentz left Brunswick and founded another fishing boat line, Caymas Boats. Loop closed. Triton and Caymas are both going strong today of course. Triton is owned by White River Marine Group.
On a personal note, for two or three years in the 1990’s, I attended the annual OMC on-water test-writer session held on Percy Priest Reservoir east of Nashville. We were sequestered at this remote marina for two or three sweltering days each year.
I learned two important things: 1) How to eat catfish for three meals every day, and 2) How to drive a bass boat properly. You see, some of them come up onto two separate planing surfaces, and as you gradually increase speed on the first step the boat can start to get squirrely. You have to trim up even more and bury the throttle at this point and the boat will migrate to the second (most aft) planing surface to be stable, so long as it is properly trimmed out.
Furthermore, while attending this exhausting daily testing of OMC’s new models in excruciating heat and humidity, we were put up in the unbelievably massive and opulent, while at the same time, down-to-earth Opryland Hotel on the outskirts of Nashville. This small city called a hotel has just under 3000 rooms, a lobby designed to resemble a grand southern mansion, and a conservatory resembling a Victorian garden.
This atrium maintained a constant temperature of 71 degrees and housed more than 10,000 plants. Another atrium has a quarter-mile-long indoor river on which flatboats carry guests along the river to their destination. There is a full shopping mall, many restaurants, doctor, dentist, and both a radio and a television station. One night, OMC treated us all to a performance at the Grand Ole Opry. Country & Western headliner Alan Jackson was playing, and the rumour was that Alan was forbidden to sing his then hit song "Mercury Blues" in deference to our OMC group! He didn’t sing it. But enough of that.
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Boat dealer principal Ray Curry of Richmond, Virginia set out in 1985 to build a better all-round “unsinkable” boat for both inland and offshore fishing, as well as for general all-round fun. He set up manufacturing facilities in Ashland, VA, just north of Richmond and his first three Wahoo! models were two 16 and one 18-footer. Wahoo! got its name from what is claimed to be the fastest swimming fish in the ocean.
These boats were almost all foam filled between the inner and outer hulls except for a built-in fuel tank and drainage channels incorporated into the foam to allow condensation to be drained out through the transom. By 1990, Wahoo! offered 11 models starting at 14 feet of primarily center consoles, but also dual and side consoles up to 21 feet and one 26 foot offshore model.
By 1995, the lineup had grown to 19 models from 12-26 feet in every conceivable configuration. By 1997, Curry took the opportunity to sell Wahoo! to Brunswick Corporation which had just the previous year purchased Boston Whaler and had owned Robalo since the early 90's. Brunswick may have melded the Wahoo! lineup in with Robalo but in any case, the Wahoo! name soon disappeared.
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In trying to research the history and development of some of these brands that are no longer with us, I have come across all sorts of “stories” that are claimed to be true but somehow don’t ring true. Some of these brands have changed hands a number of times, and following the changes sometimes results in dead ends. Sometimes I simply dive down unending rabbit holes ending up not knowing where or why I started down them. The following is a combination of all of the above. Please ride with me as I attempt to sort it out.
Wanting to build and market a better aluminum fishing boat, in 1967, Clifton Miller established Fisher Boats in West Point, Mississippi. His boats were to be all-welded and all-aluminum. For the first few years he offered only two models in 16 feet. By 1985, sales had grown as had the model lineup grown to 111 models in 16 and 17 feet.
In 1988, Fisher Boats was purchased by Brunswick Corporation to help make that company the largest pleasure boat builder in the world. By 1990, the Fisher lineup had expanded to 17 models from 14 to 18 feet and included all categories of freshwater fishing boats including side console, dual console, center console, and fish & Ski models. The 1995 lineup included all of these plus five pontoon boat models.
Tracker Marine purchased Fisher from Brunswick Corp. in 1996. By 2000, the Fisher lineup had expanded dramatically to 55 models from 10 to 24 feet and included all of the variations of fishing models, plus lots of utility boats, pontoon boats, and even some models with sterndrive power. The 2005 lineup included 14 pontoon boat models. Tracker closed the West Point manufacturing facility in the late 2000’s and moved production to its Lebanon, Mo plant but by 2009, the Fisher name seems to have disappeared.
The following is the second part of the above thread. Spectrum aluminum fishing/runabout boats is said to have started in New Paris or Nappanee, Indiana sometime in the 1970’s. Somehow and somewhere along the line, Spectrum joined forces or merged with or purchased Blue Fin boats which is said to have been started around 1980 in one or the other of the above named Indiana towns, both of which are relatively close to each other south of Elkhart (note that this Spectrum is not to be confused with Spectrum boats of the UK, and this Blue Fin is not to be confused with Blue Fin boats of Australia, both of which are still very active).
Both Spectrum and Blue Fin specialized in welded aluminum fishing boats as well as runabouts and later even cruisers. There are brochure covers of the late 1980’s promoting “Spectrum by Blue Fin” and “Blue Fin by Spectrum.” All very confusing to say the least. Suffice it to say that in 1981, one or the other or perhaps both brands offered nine models from 16-18 feet. This lineup remained relatively the same throughout the 80's.
In the late 1980’s, it is said that Blue Fin spent considerable money modernizing its production processes, and it was at this point that Spectrum became involved with it and the Blue Fin name was dropped. After after a few years, all models from then on were Spectrum. Regardless, by 1993, the model lineup had expanded incrementally to 53 models from 14 to 24 feet and even included a cruiser. In the mid-90's, Spectrum was purchased by Brunswick Corporation and melded into its Fisher lineup, which was shortly sold to Tracker Marine as we learned above, and the Spectrum name disappeared.
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For some reason, almost everyone recalls this boat brand that was around for 20 years in the 70's and 80's, but there is almost no information available on it. Lee Siebert, apparently a WWII veteran, started Mark Twain Industries in the mid-1960’s and produced the first Mark Twain family boats in 1971.
In that year there were 16 models offered from 15-24 feet including tri-hull and V-bottom bowriders, fishing boats, cuddy cabins, and mini-cruisers in both hard and soft-top configurations, and with available outboard or sterndrive power. In other words, all things for all people. The lineup range remained virtually the same until the late 80's when express cruisers up to 30 feet were added. Production ended in 1991.
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After several careers, Bill Webb decided he wanted to build boats and in 1971 started Webbcraft Boats in Collinsville, Oklahoma. Webbcraft are said to be overbuilt and finished with quality hardware and targeted at the upscale end of the marketplace. In 1972, Webbcraft offered only two models; an 18 foot tri-hull and a 20-foot V-hull, both bowriders and both sterndrive powered. This lineup continued for most of the 70's with the addition of only a few models. Sales grew and Webbcraft established dealers throughout the United States, Canada, and many other countries.
By the early 1980’s, Webbcraft’s lineup expanded considerably to 10 models from 18 to 35 feet of primarily family runabout bowriders, sport boats, ski boats, cuddy cabins, sport cruisers, small express cruisers, and the 35-foot Concorde Offshore “high performance” model. By 1987, the lineup size range remained the same while the number of models more than doubled to 22 and included several sizes of offshore-style high performance boats.
By 1992, the size range was essentially the same while the number of models once again increased, by now to 28 models. Almost all of the models had received a name change to reflect the new styling and features. By 1997, again the size range of offerings remained essentially the same while the number of models on offer dropped substantially to only 11.
Included in that lineup was perhaps the largest bowrider on the market at that time at 33 feet! Perhaps Webbcraft was ahead of its time. It is said that perhaps it was a fire that wiped out most of the production facilities, the expensive foray into high-performance boats, or perhaps it was the decline in sales but for whatever the reasons, Webbcraft shut down production in 1998.
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