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Gunboat International leading NC boat-building rally – The Virginian

WANCHESE, N.C.

Standing in a back room of Gunboat International’s catamaran plant, Aaron Cros­wait held the frayed ends of a roll of carbon fiber, a black, tightly woven material used in building everything from spaceships to tennis rackets to drones.

“See this?” Croswait said. “The fibers are very, very, very fine. It makes the boat strong and light as possible.”

The Dare County native, who helped his father and grandfather build boats with wood and fiberglass, now supervises teams that work with foam cores, resin and carbon fiber to make catamaran sailboats.

“This is the most highly engineered boat I’ve ever seen,” Croswait said. “It’s very clean work.”

Founded by sailing stalwart Peter Johnstone, Gunboat has been making catamarans since 2001, first at a plant in South Africa that has since been sold, then in China. Its 36,000-square-foot facility in Wanchese was once owned by famed Outer Banks boat builder Buddy Davis. The metal building on the shore of the Roanoke Sound sat empty for about five years before Gunboat moved in a year ago.

The company has hired 45 employees here so far.

Gunboat received a state grant of $213,000 to create 71 jobs over three years, including a goal of 30 jobs in the first 12 months. The state doles the grant as Gunboat meets hiring goals. Johnstone is well ahead of schedule and said he plans to hire an additional dozen or so workers by the end of the year.

“We have a lot of talented boat builders around,” he said, “probably the best labor pool in America for high-end boats.”

Bob Peele, director of the state-owned Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park, where Gunboat is located, said reeling in Johnstone’s investment was a coup for the state: “He’s at the forefront of the industry.”

Johnstone, 47, has had success starting sailboat businesses going back to his college days in the 1980s. ESPN televised races featuring his innovative Johnstone One Design boats. Later, he owned the Sunfish Laser boat company.

An All-American in collegiate sailing and a champion racer, Johnstone comes from a long line of seaman.

“Pirates on one side and Pilgrims on the other,” he said.

His father and uncle founded J/Boats in 1977, a Newport, R.I., business still run by Johnstone and other family members.

The Gunboat idea came when he was sailing with his family in the Caribbean in a single-hull boat. As the seas kicked up, Johnstone noticed people on a catamaran enjoying a smooth ride while everybody aboard his boat was getting sick.

On a Gunboat, he said, even if a large wave comes from the side, he can lift the centerboard and ride it out.

“It just slides down the wave like a giant raft,” he said. “Big waves are mildly uncomfortable on a cat, while they might be life-threatening on a keel boat.”

By next month, Johnstone expects to complete the first of eight 55-foot twin-hull sailboats due out in 2013. Each will cost just under $2 million and be fitted with roomy cabins comfortable for long-term cruising. Plans are to begin building a 40-foot boat by next year.

He expects to build 10 more catamarans in 2014.

Chris Grooby, an attorney from Annapolis, Md., is among his waiting customers. He and his wife, Carolyn, plan to get their Gunboat in the fall and eventually enter regattas and cruise in the Caribbean.

“Holy cow, it’s so different from any other boat out there,” he said. “Once you’ve seen one, you’re hooked.”

Sailing in a Gunboat catamaran is smooth and fast, Grooby said. The cabin is set high astraddle the hulls, he said, offering a much better view of the scenery than single-hull sailing boats.

The fact that it will be American-made appealed to him. “I’m proud to own a boat made in the USA and in North Carolina,” Grooby said.

Johnstone said the decision to build in the United States was largely cost-driven. Though labor costs are low in China, it’s expensive to ship boats from there to the U.S. market, which makes up a large percentage of Gunboat’s sales.

He considered sites around his home area in Rhode Island, but property, utilities and labor costs were very high. Florida had similar obstacles. Then he turned to North Carolina, where state industry recruiters pointed him to Wilmington, Beaufort and Wanchese, all of which have long boat-building histories.

The Gunboat ramp-up has been a shot in the arm for the North Carolina boat-building industry, which suffered in recent years amid a steep U.S. downturn in boat sales.

Only in the past year have there been strong signs of a comeback in the industry. Retail sales of new powerboats and sailboats increased nearly 11 percent in 2012, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. That was after a meager 1 percent increase the year before and several straight years of sales declines before then.

Mike Bradley, director of the state’s Boating Industry Services division, said the state’s industry is “coming back, but it’s not back where it was.”

Bradley said: “I would hazard to guess that we are at 50 to 60 percent of where we were in 2008.”

Aaron Croswait, who’s 25, is happy to be part of the resurgence.

He started out at Gunboat sweeping the shop and quickly worked his way up. After a few months, he told his father to apply. Bobby Croswait now supervises a team that builds cabin consoles and other parts. Like everybody else, he had to learn the latest construction methods.

“We were used to planks on a frame, not composites,” the elder Croswait said.

At this boat-building plant, hammers can be hard to find.

“This is going to bring a lot of other boat builders to a new age,” his son said.

Jeff Hampton, 252-338-0159, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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