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Innovators in Boating - Willis Slane & Hatteras Yachts

Willis Slane Hatteras Yachts founder
Photo- Hatteras Yachts

The pleasure boat industry is chock full of the most interesting of people -- hard working, dedicated individuals and families who have often put their life’s savings and full-time energies to fulfilling their dreams of creating the boats we know and love.

These are their stories.

“A Hatteras Yacht does not aspire to offer a luxury. That is simply where we begin.” This quote is near the top of the Hatteras Yachts website. It is one part of what Hatteras founder Willis Slane, then in his late 30s, had in mind for a boat back in the late 1950s.

Willis was the young heir to a hosiery manufacturing fortune in High Point, North Carolina, some 200 odd miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. There, off the North Carolina coast, was the abundant and famous sportfishing grounds off Cape Hatteras, also known as the 'Graveyard of the Atlantic' and the final resting place for thousands of shipwrecks.

Willis and some of his equally monied friends were ardent offshore sportfishermen and members of the Hatteras Marlin Club. The cold southerly flowing Labrador current and the northerly flowing warm Gulfstream converge off the outer islands of Cape Hatteras, resulting in nasty foaming and often monstrously angry seas. These conditions, while great for attracting the big billfish, would often keep Willis, his friends, and their wooden offshore fishing machines unable to venture forth to enjoy their favourite pastime. Willis Slane was determined to change that.

He ventured to Florida to research boatbuilding and the new boatbuilding material fiberglass, which at that point was only being used for boats up to about 30 feet. In pursuing his goal, Slane happened to meet two people who would forever change the future of boatbuilding.

The first he met was Don Mucklow, an early adopter in the use of fiberglass and who had built a large fiberglass runabout that had won the challenging Miami to Nassau offshore boat race. Slane became convinced of the strength and resilience of fiberglass when Mucklow took him out in rough waters off Miami and ran full throttle in terrible conditions. The boat survived the punishment with nary a problem.

Next, he met Jack Hargrave, a young and eager naval architect who grew up in a boating environment in upstate Michigan. Hargrave was a licensed captain by his late teens and had worked for sportfishing boatbuilding guru John Rybovich. In his mid-30's, Hargrave had designed a 90-foot motor yacht for a client that was subsequently built by renowned Burger Yachts.

Willis Slane asked Hargrave to design a boat with a fibreglass hull that could handle the worst of offshore deep water conditions. Slane wanted offshore fishing features that could accommodate four to six fishermen, while also having modern yachting conveniences, overnight accommodations, and luxurious features to appeal to family cruising. Slane called this new configuration a “convertible,” as it could adapt or convert from fishing to cruising and back again. The “convertible” descriptor has been used by the sportfishing fraternity ever since.

Slane next recruited a number of his fishing buddies to invest in a new venture to build the boat. Despite his enthusiasm, most of them thought it wouldn’t work. The boat Hargrave had designed was a 41-foot sportfisherman with a trunk cabin and a flybridge, with a 14-foot beam and powered by twin 275-horsepower automotive Lincoln V-8 gasoline engines with inboard drives.

Knit Wits Hatteras Yachts
The original 'Knit Wits'

With the Hargrave design in hand, Hatteras Yachts pushed on and began building in a defunct automobile dealership in High Point, North Carolina. Don Mucklow would serve as Vice President and General Manager. Mucklow had to train local recruits, mostly from the local textile and furniture building industries, in the art and science of fiberglass construction. What rolled out of the factory doors in spring of 1960 was the largest pleasure boat ever constructed of fiberglass in North America. Slane trucked it the two hundred miles to Morehead City, NC where he and his wife christened it Knit Wits, the first 41 Hatteras Convertible Sport Fisherman.

After it proved in all respects to be what Slane had envisioned, he proceeded to sell many of them, especially after it became the hit of the 1962 New York National Boat Show. The resulting publicity praising the largest fiberglass boat at the event resulted in sales orders pouring in. The production model displayed at the show had a fiberglass hull with a plywood deck and superstructure coated with resin. Both gasoline and diesel power became available.

Later in 1962, the 41 was also offered in Express, Sedan, Sport Fisherman, and Yacht Fisherman models, while a 34 Express, Sedan, and Sport Fisherman was also added. Perhaps the most notable addition to the lineup was the 41 Double Cabin, which was touted as the first ever fiberglass motor yacht and proved to be the start of a lasting legacy of quality, luxuriousness, and sea-kindly Hatteras motor yachts. It was one of 75 Hatteras models to be designed by Jack Hargrave.

New Bern driving boats Hatteras Yachts
Shipping the original yachts to New Bern

By 1965, the Hatteras name and reputation had grown enormously. That year, it added a 34 Double Cabin as well as a 50-footer available in both motor yacht and sport fisherman configurations. Sadly, though, in November of that year at only 44 years of age, Willis Slane died. Before he passed, Slane recruited David Parker, Jr., one of the original investors, to take over control of the company. Parker proceeded to steer Hatteras through the next 20 years of growth and maturity into the revered position in still holds today.

Needing capital for this growth, in 1968 Parker arranged for Hatteras to be merged with North American Rockwell -- a merger that provided financing for the production of over 12 new models over the next four years. In addition to the existing lineup, the new models included various configurations in 31, 36, 38, and 45 feet, as well as the Hargrave designed iconic 53 Hatteras Motor Yacht. The 53 would solidify Hatteras’ reputation for luxury and quality as one of the finest motoryacht designs ever built.

Since flybridges had to be removed for truck transport of the boats from the Hatteras factory in High Point to the ocean, in 1967 a marina facility in New Bern, NC was purchased. Its function was to facilitate not only the reassembly of the boats but also perform final detailing and water testing. In 1972, Hatteras was sold by North American Rockwell to AMF, a company which had started an accumulation of outdoor recreation-based companies, one of which was Slickcraft Boats and another, Harley-Davidson Motorcycles. By then, Hatteras offered some 20 models of gasoline and diesel-powered boats in various configurations from 31 to 58 feet.

In 1975, another iconic model, the wide beam, low horsepower, semi-displacement, and weighty 58 Hatteras Long Range Cruiser (LRC) was introduced to instant acclaim. Due to its success, by 1981 both 42 and 48 Long Range Cruisers had been added to the model lineup as well as cockpit motor yachts in 48 and 58 feet. The 32 Sport Fisherman was the smallest Hatteras offering that year.

Irwin Jacobs, through his Minstar and Genmar companies, owned several boat manufacturing companies, the most prominent being Wellcraft Marine of Sarasota, Florida. At the time, Wellcraft was one of the largest pleasure boat manufacturers in North America. By all accounts, Jacobs had his eye on Hatteras and wanted to add it to his growing fleet of boat companies. It is said that Jacobs approached AMF to buy Hatteras, and when he was rebuffed, he instead bought AMF in its entirety, kept Hatteras, and then spun off the rest of AMF. By 1986, Hatteras Yachts was part of Irwin Jacob’s expanding Genmar boating empire.

During this period of expansion, Hatteras had moved into larger manufacturing facilities while still staying in High Point. Some minor operations had been moved during AMF years to the New Bern location. The federal luxury tax of 1991 caused massive harm to Hatteras as it did to all manufacturers of large luxury boats. Sales plummeted and hundreds of workers were laid off. By 1990, the Hatteras lineup included 12 models from 38 to 58 feet, of which half were convertibles and all but one was diesel powered.

The luxury tax was repealed in 1993 and by 1997, the boat sizes were increasing yearly and the model lineup included more motor yacht configurations -- a strong reflection of the demands of the marketplace. In that same year, as the larger boats were becoming increasingly more difficult to transport on the roads, Hatteras shut down its High Point facilities and moved all production to its on-water location in New Bern.

A little over one month after the tragic events of 9/11, as the yacht market was softening, Genmar sold Hatteras Yachts to Brunswick Corporation. The rapidly growing conglomerate owned Mercury Marine, Sea Ray Boats, and many other pleasure boating entities. Public disclosures at the time indicated Hatteras annually produced, on average, 5-6 boats per month from its 15 models ranging up to 90 feet. Total annual sales were about one $130 million USD. Brunswick indicated the highly respected Hatteras lineup would fit nicely as the next step up from its Sea Ray brand, not to mention giving their portfolio an entirely new market of sportfishing yachts.

In 2003, Hatteras introduced its iconic 80 Motor Yacht which produced strong sales for over a decade. By 2006, Brunswick had purchased Cabo Yachts and added that lineup to the New Bern Hatteras production facilities. Sadly, the global recession of 2008 affected the entire pleasure boating industry. Hatteras sales softened, and by 2013 Brunswick ceased production of Cabo Yachts and put Hatteras Yachts up for sale.

Hatteras 80 Motoryacht
The Hatteras 80 Motoryacht

In late summer 2013, Hatteras/Cabo Yachts was purchased from Brunswick Corporation by an affiliate of Versa Capital Management, a private equity investment firm. At the time, the Hatteras lineup was reported to have included motor yachts from 60 to 100 feet and convertible sportfishing models from 55 to 75 feet. In that same year, the first Hatteras ever built, the 41 Hatteras Convertible Sport Fisherman, Knit Wits, underwent a full restoration at the New Bern facility.

Then in spring 2021, White River Marine Group, owned by Bass Pro Shops and builders of Ranger, Tracker, Mako, Triton, Nitro, Tahoe, and others, purchased Hatteras Yachts from Versa Capital Management. Owner Johnny Morris promised to invest considerably in the New Bern facilities and move production of Ranger and Mako saltwater models to New Bern.

As of this writing, the Hatteras website shows the current model lineup to include four models: a 45-foot cruiser and three convertible sportfishermen in 59, 65, and 70 feet. Hatteras lays claim to several innovations over the years, most notably having produced the first fiberglass yacht over 40 feet and having it labelled as a “convertible," a significant break through in pleasure boating technology. It also claims to have pioneered “the revolutionary convex and modified-V hull.”

Other innovations include a double chine design for a dryer ride, deep hull tunnels for enhanced performance, and a patented air induction system. For over 60 years, the Hatteras name has stood as a benchmark for quality and luxury to knowledgeable pleasure boaters. White River Marine Group intends to extend that well-earned reputation into the next generation of Hatteras Yachts.

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