Boatbuilder Profile: Ricky Scarborough

Boatbuilder Profile: Ricky Scarborough

On the Shoulders of Giants

Scarborough Boatworks’ “Skin Deep” moving at a high rate of speed past Bodie Island Lighthouse.

Photo: Daniel Pullen

Ricky Scarborough builds boats from fiberglass and epoxy, but his secret ingredients are family and community.

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Anyone who’s ever said that perfect is the enemy of good enough has never met Ricky Scarborough. It’s a thought that comes to mind as I wander the Scarborough Boatworks factory on a dreary spring day with Ricky and his Office and Marketing Manager Kayleigh Hatchell. The master North Carolina boatbuilder has been walking alongside and beneath the elevated hull of a 67-foot sportfisher called Waterman. She’s about halfway through her build, thoroughly flared, sleek and gorgeous. Taking in the sweep of her hull, Ricky stops to scrutinize a 50-foot-plus long strip of wood about three-quarters of the way up called an intermediate guard. There’s some minor function to the guard—lightly blunting an impact and maybe knocking down a few drops of spray, but mostly, it serves as a nice aesthetic line roughly demarcating the point where the hull really begins to flare at the bow and the inward-curving tumblehome.

To me, Hatchell, and probably 99.99 percent of us, the guard would appear to follow a perfect horizontal line along the hull contours. But we’re not Ricky Scarborough. “That just looks a little off,” Ricky says rubbing his chin. He walks back and forth, then climbs up a set of temporary stairs to peer down on the guard from the starboard gunwale. He secures a ruler and measures. It’s off—by what Hatchell later reckons is less than half an inch. Scarborough sighs and smiles. It’ll have to be re-aligned.

Ricky Scarborough sweeps a hand along “Ricky Boat” number 1.

Photo: Daniel Pullen

“That was all his eyes,” Hatchell says later in one of Ricky’s offices. “There’s no tool there.”

“He grew up with his dad doing the same thing,” Ricky’s wife Sarah adds with a laugh.

It was the sharp eye and calloused hands of Ricky’s dad, Rick Scarborough Sr., that set Ricky on a trajectory that has today landed him among the rarified ranks of North Carolina sportfish builders. It’s a roster that includes not only neighbors like Paul Spencer and John Bayliss but Outer Banks godfathers like Omie Tillett, Sheldon Midgett and Buddy Davis. Scarborough’s a key figure in a small, tightly woven community whose outsized footprint in the sportfishing realm belies the southern gothic postage stamp of Wanchese, the town at Roanoke Island’s south end that Scarborough calls home. But it’s not only the forefathers to whom Scarborough attributes his success, it’s folks like Hatchell and his wife Sarah who keep Scarborough Boatworks running. “What is it they say?” He asks later during a drive around his historic hometown. “Standing on the shoulders of giants? I mean, that’s it, for sure.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s always been easy. Heck, that doesn’t mean it’s easy today.

Going deep into Scarborough’s hull #19, the 75-foot “Skin Deep”.

Photo: Daniel Pullen

Ricky Scarborough is a big dude. Clad in a camo jacket and jeans, with short cropped hair and a five o’clock shadow, he cuts an imposing figure that belies his gentlemanly southern hospitality and gregariousness. He came into the world in 1969 and to say he and his two brothers Heath and Neil have Outer Banks roots would be an understatement. Their father’s family tree goes down through eight generations of sandy soil to the very same piece of Wanchese property his family owns today. Their mother Annette’s multi-generational clan hails from a few miles up Highway 64 in Manteo. It’s an old lineage amidst one of the oldest communities in the United States. Roanoke Island was the home of the ill-fated “Lost Colony,” where over 100 English colonists vanished after settling here in 1587.

Growing up, Ricky’s family was of modest means. Annette raised three kids while dad paid the bills and fed the family plying Albemarle Sound for shellfish and guiding duck hunting excursions. Driving down Wanchese’s main street, a road called “The Lane,” Ricky pulls into a family compound that holds the small, wood-framed home of his late grandmother Myrtle “Ma Myrt” Tillett. Ricky’s childhood home lies right behind it—and that’s backed by the bigger, though not expansive house where Ricky and Sarah raised their own two daughters. Pointing over his shoulder to the now renovated house where he grew up, he says, “When that was built, it was nothing more than what we call a salt box. Probably 1,200 square feet. It was built on six-by-six pilings that my dad and uncle put in place with posthole diggers—so it was only so deep. A hurricane came and that house would basically break-dance.”

Skin Deep’s deck under construction.

Photo: Daniel Pullen

Hurricanes and all, Ricky came of age in a kids’ paradise. From an early age, he could throw the hell out of a baseball, and when he wasn’t doing that or sitting in class, he was dirt biking, hunting the forests and marshes that ring Wanchese and fishing with his buddies. “I grew up thinking that every kid had a boat,” he says. “And as I got older, I discovered they did not. But that was all we did—that was what life was. That was our freedom. We’d just get in the boat and go run down to the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center to see what they caught. I just thought everybody did that.”

At some point in 1976, Rick Sr. decided he needed a new fishing boat, but he didn’t have the money to buy one. He’d been around Wanchese and Manteo boatbuilders all his life, so he reckoned he could build his own. With no formal training, he laid up a 27-foot-long plank and frame, flared out vee hull underneath the house with his brother. One day Ricky came home from school to find that his dad had removed the stairs to make room for the boat. And soon afterwards, something unexpected happened. “A fella named Mike Cox came to him and wanted to buy the boat,” says Ricky. “And dad said, ‘Well, I need it. But come back in the fall and we’ll talk about it.’ So, the guy did. He actually had it ‘til my dad bought it back from him about 10 years ago.”

Today, that boat—Scarborough hull number one—sits on jack stands in Ricky’s yard. His brother Heath, who runs a Wanchese metalworking business, still uses it regularly for shrimping and outings with his family.

The elder Scarborough’s custom builds came to be known, affectionately as “Ricky Boats.” Rick Sr. wasn’t all that into offshore fishing himself, but his boats were built for rough conditions and serious fishermen, and he was pleasantly surprised when a few more folks put down money for his work.

A few of Ricky’s giants: Scarborough Boatworks’ lead designer Lea Griggs, Lead CNC operator/designer Joey Andrasen and shop lead supervisor Alex Sanchez.

Photos: Daniel Pullen

Rick soon reckoned he might make a better living boatbuilding than crabbing. He built a Wanchese warehouse and office space on an old piece of family land that looked out towards Oregon Inlet, eventually building a small railway to launch his boats. “He built five of ‘em here in two years,” recalls Ricky pulling up to a structure that still provides an office for his wife and serves as the build site for his pilot houses. The building flooded (and still floods) during strong southerly winds, and it was cramped, but it allowed Scarborough to build boats as big as 41 feet for word-of-mouth customers from as far away as Virginia Beach.

Iconic early builds included the 44-foot long Tarheel (today called Sea Angel), a gorgeous sportfisher originally bought by Ricky’s boatbuilding neighbor and former charter captain John Bayliss. Scarborough cracked the 50-foot mark with Sushi back in 1987 and worked his way up to the 67-foot mark in 1995 with Eye Roller.

Thanks to his upbringing, Ricky simply found himself working alongside his dad on the early builds. Ricky learned to pull a string and craft boats by hand and the Scarborough crew did everything without the aid of computers. And all the boatbuilders in the area collaborated and shared ideas and insights—as they still do today.

The father and the son.

But Ricky had no intention of following in his dad’s footsteps. He wanted to play baseball and was good enough to be recruited to pitch for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (he would later earn a business degree from Eastern Carolina University). “Baseball was my dream,” he says. “And for here, I was good. But when I went off to college, I found there was, you know, a lot of ‘em like me.”

Pitching wore out Ricky’s elbow far too early and he gave up baseball. “But I loved to be on the water, I loved to fish and when I was out of college, well, I worked with my dad in the summers.”

When those summers—and college—were over though, Ricky started to get more serious about his dad’s boats. As lengths climbed, so did the net worth of buyers—and the Scarborough reputation.

Ricky became fascinated with boatbuilding innovations and took a real interest in cold-molded construction after a trip to the Rybovich yard. “I was down there to work on one of our boats in the yard, and I actually had to borrow something from Mike Rybovich,” he says. “He was in there lofting a boat on the floor. And he looked at me funny when I said I’d never seen that. We’d all built plank-on-frames, right-side up. It piqued my interest.”

Sarah Scarborough downplays the importance her role helping manage Scarborough Boatworks’ plays in its success. Her husband, however, does not: “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” 

Photo: Daniel Pullen

He also wanted to employ early CAD design and CNC machines. But his dad wanted nothing to do with cold molding or this new computer tech. Preferring to design and cut everything—including foam and wood interior mockups—by hand. “He just wouldn’t do it,” Ricky recalls. “He couldn’t wrap his head around it.”

Ricky was still a bachelor as he entered his third decade. One day a cousin told him about a girl he should meet who worked in a Kitty Hawk restaurant called Goodlife Gourmet. “So, he came in one day and said,” ‘I think you used to date my cousin,’” laughs Ricky’s wife Sarah. “It was not a very good pickup line.”

Sarah was seven years younger. Originally from Ashland, Kentucky, she had moved with her entrepreneurial single mom and three siblings to the Outer Banks when she was 12. “Mom started a cleaning company for the beach rentals,” she recalls. “She also did odd jobs in the off-season from teaching Spanish at the middle school to working for the county at a group home for the mentally handicapped. She was a jack of all trades.”

Sarah had long identified more with the Outer Banks rough and tumble surfing community than its fishermen or boatbuilders, “and Ricky came in all clean cut,” she says. “I was asking what he did. He said he built boats with his dad. And I’m like, ‘But what’s your job?’ He says, ‘I build boats with my dad.’ I thought he’s gonna be a sales rep, because he would get dressed up and come in there to try to impress a lady. I was like, this guy ain’t built nothin’. So, on our second date, we both had labs and took our labs to play with them on the beach. And then he brought me over to the boat shop. And it was, ‘Oh, you build boats…with your dad. You really do.’ It kind of like, changed my head, because I was just thinking that he was just kind of a jock.”

Photo: Daniel Pullen

The independent-minded Sarah had captured Ricky’s heart. “My family tree needed some branches,” he laughs. “I was related to everybody. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Nearing a decade into the 2000’s, Rick Sr. was diagnosed with cancer. It was caught early and he would survive for another decade. But as for boatbuilding, the Scarborough patriarch simply—and abruptly—decided to throw in the towel at age 62. “He just said, ‘I’ve had enough,’” recalls Ricky.

There was no plan of succession and the country was amidst a deep recession that would claim plenty of North Carolina boatbuilders. Ricky and Sarah had two young daughters and to top it off, Sarah had just come off open heart surgery for a valve transplant. “There weren’t any order backlogs,” says Sarah. “Rick’s dad said, ‘Well, I’m gonna finish this boat and good luck to you.’ And we were like ‘Uhhhh. Okay.’”

Then in August of 2011, Hurricane Irene came calling. Ricky had never left for a storm before, but he’d thrown his back out preparing for the storm, limiting his mobility and this storm just looked different, so they evacuated their low-lying ranch home for Raleigh.

Wanchese was utterly devastated by a 10-foot surge. Boats floated around the ruined Scarborough factory and Ricky and Sarah’s modest house was destroyed, forcing the family to move in with Ricky’s parents. “We were homeless,” Sarah says. “Rick was like, throwing up in his toothpaste every day. I’m going, ‘We’re gonna be fine. We just have to sell a couple of boats.’ I’d grown up with a single mom and I just always saw her make things turn out. But you know, he’d never been in that position before.”

Ricky cleared the raccoons out of the damaged waterfront factory and got to work. “So yeah, there was no succession plan,” he says. “And that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because I had to figure out how to do it.”

An order came in for a 36 from a longtime client who then came through with an order for a 60-footer called Saga. A year after that came an order for a 57-footer called Sally Girl, a low-slung, blue-hulled beauty that’s actually today in the yard for a refit. “It kind of took off from there,” says Sarah.

Ricky didn’t hesitate to move from plank-on-frame to cold molded construction. He also bought a succession of CAD and CNC machines to handle an ever-evolving line of modeling and detail work. Sarah took over the office finances, freeing up Ricky to concentrate on a succession of larger custom builds. Ten years ago, they hired the Rodanthe-born Kayleigh Hatchell, who today helps handle marketing and the myriad of issues, requests and phone calls from owners who might suddenly want to pop in on their private jet to order a boat or check in on a build. The main factory where Hatchell and Ricky have their offices is called “Sonny’s Harbor.” It’s an ode to Sonny Briggs, the legendary builder they bought the shop from, and Sonny Albarty, a nephew of Sarah’s who passed away in 2020, after a long illness.

Like the shops of many custom builders, Sonny’s Harbor is an ever evolving and expanding space. As new orders have come in, and hulls have grown longer, Ricky and his crew have added construction room and offices as they’ve seen fit. Under a big shelter, a pair of sportfishers, 67 and 75 feet—including the one with the half-inch-off piece of trim, are in mid-build while Sally Girl is out front for a refit. On the channel out back, a positively beautiful new 75-footer called Game Time just finished her first sea trial last week and is now in the latter stages of her interior build. Climbing aboard, the unfinished yacht is almost as impressive as she’ll be when complete—because it’s here you can see the attention to detail Ricky and his crew pour into a build. Multilayered teak doorframes and the cedar closet panels may be cut via CNC, but they’re hand laid and glued. All over the boat, wiring is exquisitely laid out for its final destinations. Hand-drawn pencil markings and measurements run along the walls and corners. The engine room is spotless, with plenty of room to access the twin 2400 Caterpillars that can push the boat to 43 knots.

Game Time’s owner is Clay Nalley. One of the directors of Atlanta’s SONS automotive group, the Nalleys have roots in Georgia’s automobile business going back to Clay’s great-grandfather. In 2016, Clay, a serious Georgia Bulldog fan, commissioned his first version of Game Time, a 63-footer.

“I knew I wanted a Carolina Boat,” he tells me. “I knew about Bayliss and Paul Mann, and somebody told me, you need to call Ricky Jr. So, I did. I said, ‘I want to build a really nice 63-footer with a tower.’ And Ricky said, ‘Well, I’ve been looking for someone to build a nice boat with a tower on it.’ I was kind of awestruck to be honest. I’ve heard about Scarborough Boatworks my whole life. Working with them, it’s not a mass production situation. You’re dealing with real people in a family business—which I completely understand. And our journey with that 63 was him leading me to build a beautiful boat. And when I say him leading me, I knew a lot about center consoles—I knew zero about sportfishermen.”

“We do enjoy giving the customers their vision,” says Sarah. “Ricky really enjoys boat building and he enjoys helping somebody get their dream boat. It is a different process than just turning something out. And it’s a long process. And we’ve been very, very blessed with the customers that we have. We have great relationships. It just wouldn’t be as enjoyable without the relationships.”

If there’s any downside to running the business so Ricky can concentrate on building boats, Sarah says it’s the same perfectionism that lets Ricky notice a minutely misaligned piece of trim. “He drives me crazy,” she laughs. “Because when he’s decided he’s gonna do something that he doesn’t ever do anything halfway—ever.”

Another challenge to living, working and building boats in Wanchese, the Scarboroughs say, comes in simply maintaining a roster of skilled craftspeople in a remote area. But the remoteness, also means an unusual support network, as this cluster of builders together have an easier time getting vendor assistance and supplies. “We all know each other, and we’re not enemies” says Ricky. “If I needed something, I’d pick up the phone and call John Bayliss, and vice versa. Or Paul Mann. When he retired and sold his business, he personally called me to come pick whatever I wanted out of his shop. He said, ‘Which desk do you want?’ I want yours!”

An art major in school, Sarah’s a little more philosophical, pointing out how much attention all the builders pay to each other’s work. “It was kind of like, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Gauguin and all those big time impressionist artists. They sat in coffee shops together. They compared each other’s work. And that’s why they were the greats.”

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This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.