Stuart’s legacy of boatbuilding dates back 100 years. It was 1921 when Curt Whiticar built his first boat, launching Whiticar Boat Works and what would become a mecca for the construction of some of the world’s finest high-performance sport fishing yachts.
Since then, Stuart has become synonymous with world-class sportfishing thanks to brands such as Monterey, Billy Knowles, Gamefisherman, Garlington-Landeweer, Jim Smith, L & H, Tribute and American Custom Yachts.
The latter, in the Treasure Coast Commerce Center in west Stuart, was acquired by Willis Custom Yachts earlier this year, but terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Stringers Tavern & Oyster Bar: Great food blends with Stuart’s boatbuilding history
Willis Custom Yachts is a new entity formed from Willis Marine Inc., a boatbuilding company founded by Mark Willis of Stuart in 1990. American Custom Yachts was founded in Stuart in 1991 by Dominick LaCombe.
The new company plans to add 75 jobs soon, and more in the years to come once it starts to build the center console brand Venture Boats in a new manufacturing facility. The company plans to build that in two or three years on the vacant land across the South Fork of the St. Lucie River from the company’s main yard.
But first, the boat must be redesigned to compensate for added outboard motors, said Doug West, president and general manager of Willis’ yacht services.
Willis Custom Yachts
The sale of the waterfront property along the South Fork of the St. Lucie River and Okeechobee Waterway, and in between the bridges for Interstate 95 and Florida’s Turnpike, gives Willis Custom Yachts:
- 64 acres on both sides of the waterway
- 34 acres of working boatyard
- About 300 feet of frontage along the waterway
- 25 wet slips with 8 feet of depth
- 2 haul-out wells
The new company announced plans to add:
- 220-ton marine lift
- 150-ton marine lift (new)
- 90,000-square-foot yacht-construction building
- On-site restaurant
- New construction facility for Venture Boats, a center console brand now owned by Willis Custom Yachts.
Willis Custom Yachts also will build a new waterfront facility east of Northwest Flagler Avenue near the Roosevelt Bridge in Stuart to facilitate new yacht-customer deliveries.
“I am very excited to have waterfront access of this magnitude,” Willis said. “It changes the game for us and will vastly enhance our ability to provide the highest quality service and support to all of our customers.”
Willis Marine sportfishing boats
Over the last 30 years, Willis has developed a reputation as being a builder of one of the finest sportfishing yachts on the ocean. His partner, Brooks Smith, founder and CEO of InComm Payments, a global financial technology company, is an avid angler and longtime Willis customer.
Willis, originally from North Carolina, began his career in the fishing and boating industry early in life, obtaining his captain’s license at age 19. He got an engineering degree from Western Pennsylvania University. After graduating, Willis pursued his passion for fishing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where he built his first boat.
Willis Marine has built and launched 15 boats since being founded, including well-known boats on the sailfish and marlin tournament circuits such as Katie M, Lucky Punch, NuCo2, Uno Mas and the second Bone Shaker, which originally had been the Katie M.
Custom sportfishing boats of 60-90 feet in length cost owners millions of dollars and often take 2-3 years to build one boat. A 63-foot boat built by Willis in 2001 is currently offered by a broker for $2.9 million.
What changes are coming?
The next Willis boats — 61-90 feet and designed to perform in fishing scenarios in seas around the world — will be rolling off the production line at a faster rate in coming years, West said.
“Smith is big into technology and innovation. We are going to introduce in the new boatbuilding facility a lot of machinery so we can reduce the build time significantly. That will allow us to build six boats at a time instead of one,” West told TCPalm.
West joined Willis from Lauderdale Marine Center, where he worked in the yacht service industry since 2015. Before that, he worked for the family of Wayne Huizenga with Blockbuster and AutoNation. In 2005, Wayne Huizenga Jr. bought Rybovich, a boatbuilding and yacht repair and service facility in Riviera Beach. The next year, Huizenga Jr. called West about coming to Rybovich to get operations in shape.
West said Willis’ main focus will be to complete the project begun in 2020 by American Custom Yachts, hull No. 22, a 68-footer named Cambeaux, and to finish hulls No. 15 and 16, two 70-footers. West said three new orders already have been placed.
Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoors writer. Sign up for his and other weekly newsletters at profile.tcpalm.com/newsletters/manage. Friend Ed on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read More:Willis Custom Yachts acquires American Custom Yachts in Stuart