By Nichole Osinski
Sitting in his truck, the A/C at full blast, Donnie Caison stares out across the boat yard in North Carolina where Caison Yachts’ first build rests, getting some routine work done. “I was kind of a late bloomer, I fished in lakes. I was in my 20s before I started saltwater fishing,” Donnie recalls when asked how he got into offshore fishing.
“I went to work for a guy as a general superintendent in the late 80s at a site development company, and he took me fishing. We went to the local ledge called the 23-mile rock and caught sailfish, king mackerel and other species. I came home and immediately bought a 20-foot center console.” On his maiden voyage fishing for Spanish mackerel, he blew the powerhead on the motor, forcing Caison to find a replacement outboard. He ended up buying a 150 Mercury. “Of course, it was a 25-inch shaft instead of a 20-inch shaft, so I had to raise the top of the transom. So that was my first fiberglass work,” Caison says.
Caison Buys a Yacht
He fished that boat for several years before buying a 25-foot Hydra-Sport that had been in a car wreck. This required him to rebuild the stringers, put the boat back together and find 200 Yamahas without too many hours. During that time he was helping Bobby Brown, director of the annual Cape Fear Blue Marlin Tournament, build a house. While hanging siding one day, the two men started talking about getting a larger boat. “We were going to buy an old 31 Bertram and fix it up, and then I found a boat for like $19,000, but it had gas motors, and I wanted diesels. So I started to add it all up,” Caison says.
“The next weekend, we were hanging siding again, and I said, ‘Man, we’re going to have $150,000 dollars in this 35-year-old boat that we couldn’t sell for $50,000. For a hundred and fifty grand, I bet I could build a boat.’ He said, ‘You can’t build a boat!’ And I said, ‘You just watch me!’”
Accepting the Bet
With a goal in mind, Caison started his research, reading every book on boat design and construction he could find. He visited boat yards, and if he saw a boat that he knew performed well, either because he’d been on it himself or had heard about it through word of mouth, he would measure it to try and discover what made it run so well.
“I started drawing boats, and I probably drew 100 boats and then thought I had what I wanted. So I built the scale model of the hull.” Donnie and Bobby took the model and boat plans to Jarrett Bay Boatworks, where Bobby introduced him to Randy Ramsey. Ramsey brought along Pete Hunt and Gary David, his engineers at the time, to assist with the build. “Of course, they were more fascinated with the model than they were anything else, because they were like, ‘How long did that take?’, and I said a few hours, not long,” he laughs. “So we talked about it, and they said, ‘Well, it looks like a good boat, and if you decide to build it and got any questions, just call us.’”
The Project Begins
Caison drove home and in January of 1998 started building hull number one in a 40-foot shed behind his house. While this 37-foot express may have been Caison’s first foray into boat building, his father had been a contractor. By the age of 16, he had his plumbing license, and for Caison, building a boat was like building “a house that’s got to stay together in a six-foot sea.”
Caison considers his entry into the world of boat building to be a little non-traditional. Not only could he draw his own boats, but he could loft them and build them as well. “It’s very logical, it’s not rocket science, it’s just boat building. But it’s fun, a lot more fun than building roads, which is what I did before,” Caison says.
Planning and Christening
When it came to design, Caison knew he wanted a decent-sized cockpit and good visibility. But he mainly wanted to make sure the cold-molded boat looked like a custom-built Carolina sportfish. “The fit and finish and faring had to be like it came from Jarrett Bay, Bayliss or Spencer. It had to look like the product of a factory or craftsman. That was my biggest fear—that it would not look good,” Caison says. “It got sanded and sanded and sanded. But it turned out pretty good, especially for hull number one.”
A handful of friends helped build the boat nights and weekends. One friend would come over to the house almost every night around 7 p.m., right after Caison got off work. Together, the two would work on the boat until about midnight. One day, while the group was sitting around, drinking some beers and trying to think of a name for the almost complete boat, Caison remarked that if he hadn’t been dared to do it then he never would have started building that boat. Caison’s now ex-wife turned to him and asked, “Someone dared you to do this? Because when I find out who it was, I’m going to kill them.” Bobby Brown, who was sitting among the group, slowly raised his hand. Jokingly, Caison’s wife balled her fists and turned to Brown, who replied “Whoa whoa whoa, don’t I get a last request?”
The First Outing
In January of 1999, Caison completed Last Request. By that April, she was docked in Bradley Creek Marina in Wilmington, North Carolina. Sea trials went as well as they could have gone, though on his first time venturing out on the water Caison was so overwrought he had to have a friend drive the boat.
“I was so nervous about what it was going to do or not do, but it did perfectly,” Caison says. “I quit my job in construction and went full-time fishing.” Last Request fished out of the Wilmington-Wrightsville Beach area for about 5 years. She was then sold and stayed in Radio Island in Beaufort, South Carolina, until she changed ownership again around 2015. Last Request had blown a motor and was sitting on a hill at Jarrett Bay Boatworks waiting to go out on the water. Then, Caison got a call from a man by the name of Will Douglas who wanted to talk to him about the boat.
“I said, you know, for what they’re asking for it, you’re not going to turn around, flip it and make a bunch of money,” Caison remembers. “You’ll want to buy it, fix it and fish with it. It’ll be a great boat.” After that conversation Caison was pretty sure he’d scared off Douglas from making that purchase. However, a few days later, he received a call saying he’d bought the boat. Now, it was up to Caison to repower her. They also painted the hull, fitted a new tower and got the boat seaworthy once again. Douglas has had the boat since, now rechristened Pirates Pride.
Caison Yachts Today
Though Caison swore he’d never build another boat again if he finished Last Request, 20 years later, he’s still at it in Hampstead, North Carolina. “It’s a lot of work. You’ve got to make sure you really want to do it before you start,” he says, watching as crew move around the 37-foot boat he’s just spent the better part of an hour talking about. “The building part is easy, but making it look good, that’s a whole different story.”
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