Legendary North Carolina boat builder and fisherman, Carson R. "Buddy" Davis, Jr. passed away on January 17, 2011 after a lengthy illness.. Among his many accomplishments, Buddy Davis is credited with building more than 350 boats; bringing yacht finishes to custom-built Carolina sport fishing boats; and, with incorporating many contemporary design innovations and construction techniques into the boat building process.
Most importantly, Davis will be known for introducing the "Carolina flare" to the world. Even though he may have had a bumpy ride, Buddy Davis was instrumental in creating a legacy that will live on every time we see one of those sleek, bow-proud, flared hulls of a custom Carolina sport fishing boat. Whether at rest in a marina or knifing through a six-foot wave, we should credit Davis with helping to bring us these beautiful works of art.
In reflecting on Davis' career, it is appropriate to call on his peers and no one is more knowledgeable than his mentor, Captain Omie Tillett. It comes as no surprise that when Omie talks about Buddy Davis he becomes animated. As both arms fly into the air, Omie sings out:
"Buddy started working with me when he was 14 years old. He was a fantastic mate. He was as comfortable on a boat as a squirrel is in a tree, jumping and climbing around all over the place. You know, he was excited and when you're excited, you do a good job."
If you know Omie, you already understand that being excited about whatever you do is one of his "nuggets to live by" and Buddy Davis more than passed the test.
Omie goes on and on about Davis' exploits and the fun they had fishing together. Whether rigging baits, wiring a fish, anticipating his next move or simply having the boat prepped and ready, Buddy was great. And Captain Tillett knows. As one of the six inaugural recipients of the new IGFA award, "Legendary Captains and Crew," Captain Omie Tillett has seen it all when it comes to offshore fishing.
Buddy Davis was born in 1948 in the heart of the legendary boat building and fishing community of Manteo on Roanoke Island. Like many of the boys in town, Davis began working as a mate on a charter boat at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. During his apprenticeship, Buddy learned the art of rigging baits, tying knots and working lines. He also became proficient at reading the water, putting out a spread of baits, fighting and gaffing fish and especially dealing with fishermen.
He credits his teachers, some of the best captains in the Oregon Inlet fleet, with patiently sharing their knowledge and skills during his learning process.
In addition to Captain Tillett, Davis worked with other great captains including Lee Perry and Warren O'Neal. With an innate passion for fishing and a strong desire to learn the why's and how's of boat building, Buddy Davis convinced Captain Warren O'Neal to let him serve as an apprentice in his boat building shop.
At first he was only allowed to clean the shop and pass materials to the carpenters but he was quick to absorb the basics of boat building. Even during his time off, Buddy would come to the shop and watch for hours as O'Neal neatly cut and fitted the juniper boards for his next custom sportfisherman.
Warren O'Neal recognized the potential in Buddy Davis and he began to nurture his talents. Davis and fellow apprentice Stuart Bell, O'Neal's grandson, steadily progressed in the boat shop until they were bestowed with the honor and title of "Official Boat Sanders." And sand they did. All day, every day. They hand-sanded the wide juniper boards on a boat big enough to fill the entire shop. They sanded until the boards were perfectly smooth and just when they thought they were perfect, Warren made them sand some more. Finally, after what seemed like weeks of sanding, O'Neal decided it was time to apply the first coat of paint and then the Official Sanders started all over again. After a second and third coat of paint was applied, the hull was finished and the two apprentices had learned a fundamental boat building lesson — hard work. Bell believes this was Warren's way to make sure that he and Davis understood the value of finishing college. They did.
Warren O'Neal, considered the "father of the Carolina style, paid Davis a noteworthy tribute when he said: "Buddy is doing things with boats that the rest of us only dream about." This is a wonderful acknowledgement from a master boat builder.
Buddy Davis continued to work summers at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center and in 1968, at the age of 20, he became captain of his first boat, the Sportfisher. This boat was owned by Captain Tillett and he described his decision to let Buddy take on the responsibility as captain.
"Buddy had passion. His heart was always in the right place and he wanted to do the very best job he could. I just felt like he was ready," said Omie. "You can't hold a good man back. You have to help him move forward."
The Sportfisher was previously named Twins and she was charter fished at Hatteras. She had received enough maintenance to keep her in running condition but she still needed considerable attention. Omie recalls that Buddy had to stand on "throttle watch" every time the boat was slowed to idle speed because she kept knocking off. Buddy would give her throttle two quick bursts to keep the engine revved up and she ran just fine.
About two months into the fishing season, Buddy Davis had earned a reputation and he became more and more confident as a captain; some even said cocky. His trademark was to pull into the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center just a little faster than the older captains, stop quickly, spin his boat around and back the Sportfisher into her berth beside Captain Lee Perry's Deepwater.
One afternoon, during her patented spin, the Sportfisher lost power. Unable to control her stern, Buddy crashed into Lee's boat. Everyone on the docks was in an uproar at the proceedings until Lee came running out of the marina yelling at the top of his lungs. The resulting "discussion" was nothing short of legendary. Captain Perry even chastised Omie for letting the young Davis captain his boat.
You know someone was going to get a nickname out of this mishap, and it was Buddy Davis. He immediately became known on the docks as "Oooden, Oooden," mimicking the distinctive sound of his idling engines. The captains would also make a motion as if pushing forward on the throttles as they called him just to add to the misery. Buddy said he did learn a valuable lesson and he forever slowed his docking speed.
In the winter of 1970, Buddy began working with Sheldon Midgett. During this tenure, Davis learned the carpentry skills and construction techniques that provided the foundation for his extensive boat building expertise. He credits Sheldon Midgett for teaching him how to efficiently build boats.
In 1973, Buddy Davis started Davis Boatworks in Manteo and like his mentors; he built boats only in the winter. His first boat, Capt. B.C., was constructed for charter captain Buddy Cannady. This 46-foot vessel had a juniper hull and was built using the traditional plank-on-frame method. In 1974, Davis moved his boat shed from Manteo to Wanchese where he built the Bishop 2 with assistance from well-known boat builders Billy Holton and Sunny Briggs. The Bishop 2 was Captain Brigg's charter boat for several years until Sunny started building boats full-time.
Even while building boats, Buddy Davis continued to operate as a charter captain at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. With a passion for knowledge, Davis studied how each boat in the fleet performed under a variety of sea conditions, and he learned from fellow captains about the most desirable sea-keeping characteristics of each. He often talked to other captains about how their boats performed and summarized his findings by declaring: "In a sportfishing boat, it's all about the power. Always has been, always will be."
After Sportfisher, Davis purchased Skipper from Buster Hummer in Hatteras which he chartered until 1975. Davis then became captain of the Fish-N- Fool, built by Sheldon Midgett. He ran this boat through the summer of 1976 when he started building boats full-time.
Captain Dean Johnson, who also builds beautiful sport fishing boats, was one of Buddy's mates on the Fish-N-Fool. Dean can relate many stories about their exploits, most of which can't be printed. One particular time does stand out for Dean and it was the day he and Buddy caught and released eighteen white marlin before noon. He recalls that in the mid-1970s, this was a fishing feat that few had accomplished. Dean said all summer he and Buddy strolled around the docks to remind the other captains about "the great catch."
In 1977, Buddy Davis was among the first North Carolina boat builders to build hulls with diagonal juniper planks covered with fiberglass. In 1978, he switched to mahogany plywood under fiberglass. A year later Davis changed to diagonal plywood with a fiberglass exterior and achieved the strength and durability he was seeking at a much better cost. Davis credited both Rybovich and Merritt, famous Florida boat builders, with pioneering these techniques, and acknowledged their significant influence on his construction methods.
In 1981, Buddy Davis began building boats using jigs instead of the traditional plank-on-frame construction approach. Craig Blackwell, now a custom boat builder in Wanchese, was hired to help with the jig design. Blackwell and Davis soon started using epoxy resins and glues commonly used in cold-molded construction today.
Craig and Buddy became good friends and shared a passion for boat design and fabrication. Craig describes Buddy as a hard worker that was dedicated to building the best boat he could deliver. Blackwell also credits Davis with creating a "family" atmosphere in his boat building organization.
"Buddy Davis was a worker. Some of the crew even called him "Tas" because of his penchant for being so consumed in his work. Davis' own boat was called Tasmanian Devil and it featured a little whirlwind on the transom," relates Blackwell. "Buddy was at work before everyone else and he left after everyone. He really was a Tasmanian devil."
"Furthermore," continued Blackwell, "Buddy treated everyone fairly and with compassion. He never raised his voice and he was always available to discuss differing ideas.
For example, we were working on a prototype boat design and we were ready to move the hull outside to flip her over. As was his custom, Buddy hired a local mover to give him some business but the crane he brought was too small for the job. I tried to talk him out of it, but Buddy was adamant that this contractor needed the work," said Blackwell. Sure enough, when boat was lifted out of the shop and into the road where she was to be turned over, one of the chains snapped and the hull crashed to the pavement.
Blackwell cringed and turned to Davis. To his surprise Buddy said, "Great, that's the perfect spot. We can spin her over right there!" They did and after finding minimal damage, the hull was moved back into the building where they finished production.
Craig also described a time when a local church called on Davis to help with a sign. Buddy had his carpenters stop what they doing to build this sign and he even hired a sign painter to come in and complete the job. "That's just the way he was," said Blackwell. "He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it."
In 1983, Davis engineered another transformation when he entered the era of fiberglass molded, semi-custom sport fishing boats. His plant in Wanchese produced fiberglass boats ranging from 28-feet to 32-feet with his trademark flared bow. He offered to outfit each boat at the request of the fisherman.
During his professional career, Buddy Davis encountered many of the hardships that befall businesses. He weathered bankruptcies, recessions, luxury taxes on boats, inflation and, yes, even some bad decisions. Omie summarized it this way: "The only people that don't make mistakes are the ones that don't do anything. Buddy tried a lot of new things and some of them just didn't work out. Can't blame him for being an innovator, though."
Buddy Davis also suffered many tribulations in his personal life. He had a drinking problem that affected his family and friends but through it all he maintained his zest for life and his compassion for others.
As a tribute to the impact of Buddy Davis on the Carolina style sportfishing boat, the Dare County Boat Builders Foundation has established a scholarship fund in Davis' honor. "We want to recognize Buddy's accomplishments in the industry and a scholarship to help local students further their education is one way to perpetuate his legacy," said noted boat builder Ricky Scarborough, Jr., Vice-Chairman of the Foundation.
Contributions to the Buddy Davis Scholarship Fund can be made by contacting the Dare County Boat Builders Foundation.