Freeman Boats: Boatbuilder Profile

Freeman Boats: Boatbuilder Profile

Of all the boatbuilders who have dabbled in fast, multi-hulled fishing vessels, it’s arguable that none has done more to legitimize the concept than Billy Freeman.

Standing alongside a mold in his soon-to-expand 170,000 square foot factory Charleston factory, Billy Freeman has brought the fishing catamaran along father—and faster than he ever could have imagined.

There was an exact moment when I was definitively sold on the design behind Freeman Boatworks’ center console catamarans. It wasn’t while quietly rocketing up a lightly rippled Intracoastal Waterway behind Sullivans Island at 60 knots aboard his flagship 47-footer while four 400 horsepower Mercurys returned an astounding mile per gallon. It wasn’t comfortably pounding Freeman’s new 28-footer at 35 knots through confused four foot head seas while heading outside the Charleston Harbor Jetties. No, for me the moment came when I was returning to Charleston Harbor with those four-foot waves on the 28’s port stern quarter. Freeman Boatworks’ Marketing Director Scott Cothran stood to starboard while my 14-year-old son Fritz whooped it up riding shotgun on the seat in front of the console. We’d been trailing a huge container ship and with Cothran’s encouragement, I throttled up the twin Mercury Racing 300’s to pass it. I didn’t slow much as we approached a series of four-foot ship wakes. Launching over the waves head-on at 20-plus knots, I momentarily feared I’d made a mistake. The 28 leapt into the air and Fritz grabbed the armrests—momentarily weightless. I braced for a rough landing. But there wasn’t one. The hull just pillowed us down over the wakes in succession and kept tracking straight as an arrow. I sped up and made for Shem Creek.

I’d been trying for weeks to wrangle Cothran into letting me take the helm of the 28—a new Freeman vessel that had drawn scores of oglers at the Miami boat show. Finally, Cothran had a free April play day. “Meet me at Shem Creek,” he said. “We might take out the 47 too.” Fritz hand sketches a lot of boats—especially Freemans and relished a half-day of hooky from school. “Oh, my gosh,” he said on seeing the sleek, gray beauty in the flesh.

The 28 was actually a somewhat unusual boat for Freeman. Cothran’s boss Billy Freeman made a name for himself building a succession of fast, remarkably efficient and seaworthy offshore fishing catamarans between 33 and 47 feet. The 28 is a comparatively diminutive hybrid center console bay boat. With her low freeboard, she was conceived as more of an inshore to nearshore fishing machine—and sandbar picnic cruiser. “But we’ve actually pushed it a lot farther out than nearshore,” said Cothran. “It’s got a 250 gallon fuel capacity and probably averages, just under two miles a gallon. So, you have tremendous range.”

Almost any catamaran can perform well in head seas. Tracking safely—and reliably in following and quartering seas was part of Billy Freeman’s secret hull recipe.

Photo: Chance Craven

There’s also a tremendous range of highly skilled boatbuilders here in the Carolinas, but few have a more interesting, nerve-wracking and I’d daresay inspiring backstory than Billy Freeman, and heck, for that matter, Scott Cothran. Billy, now 51, grew up on what was then the northern outskirts of Charleston near the historic Old Village of Mount Pleasant. His great grandfather, Lockwood Freeman, developed Billy’s street Freelock Drive, back in the 1930’s. “Then my great uncle “Locky” Freeman was the game warden who gave everybody hell,” he said in a friendly Lowcountry drawl. “And my other great uncle was Paul Foster, the magistrate of Mount Pleasant. There was a whole line of law enforcement back in the day.”

In the late 80’s and 90’s, Mount Pleasant was a small hamlet set along the edge of a rural landscape of dense forests, winding creeks and wide open Lowcountry waterways. “All those things you take for granted,” Freeman reminisced. “Weekends were bonfires in the woods where neighborhoods are now. That’s where we used to play. It was a lot more freedom and a lot less traffic—the freedom to be able to go out for a boat ride on a Saturday and not pass 300 boats. And everybody knew everybody. Right now, somebody meets me and I say I’m from Charleston and they’re like, ‘No, where are you really from?’”

Tinkering with boats is in Freeman’s DNA. He rebuilt his first marine engine at 13 and gained sea time aboard a 16-foot McKee Craft skiff. Out of Wando High School, he earned an electronic technician’s degree and jobs in Atlanta and Tampa followed. Tampa was okay, but it wasn’t Charleston. When he made it back to the Lowcountry in the early 90’s, he wanted a boat to fish offshore with and work on. A beaten 20-foot Wellcraft V20 center console fit the bill. “I literally borrowed $3,000 and bought it,” he said. “They called ‘em ‘V-lifts’. With it, I learned how to work on boats—and I learned real quickly what not to do.”

The Mount Pleasant, South Carolina shed where it all began.

Photo: Sallie Freeman

Freeman fished the boat, fixed it up it and sold it for a gain, using that money to buy—and restore—a 1979 Seacraft 23 center console. “Which I thought was gonna be the end-all-be-all for offshore fishing,” he said. “But if you didn’t have a next to perfect day, it wasn’t that great.”

Freeman met the love of his life, Sallie, in 1997. While working full time, he learned to TIG weld and built T-tops for a Mount Pleasant fabricator. When that business fizzled, he apprenticed for a guru named Mark Bayne at Sea Island Boatworks. “There, I learned to do wood, epoxy and fiberglass—basic boatbuilding 101,” he said.

Eventually, a buddy suggested Freeman head offshore with him aboard a center console catamaran. “He said, ‘They ride way better,’” Freeman recalled. “I’m like, that’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen—a cat-hulled skiff—23, 24 feet long. But I was just like, Oh, dear God. This is better.”

A 24-foot Manta catamaran was collecting leaves in a Mount Pleasant resident’s yard. “I bugged the hell out of the owner until he finally sold it to me for like, $8,000 to $9,000,” Freeman said. “The motors were shot, but the hull was good.”

Photo: Chance Craven

Photo: Chance Craven

Freeman installed twin Yamaha 150’s to make it fast, then spent “countless” hours tinkering. Trim tabs made a huge difference, “but the handling was the number one issue. Like with lots of two-hulls, it just didn’t have the right bottom to the run really good in quartering and following seas. It was ugly, too—a shoe box with two hulls.”

That following/quartering sea-induced bow steer was what turned people off from catamarans. If he could crack that code with a beautiful hull, Freeman thought he might really be on to something. But by this point, he had a solid job with Lucent technologies—and two young kids. Solving the handling puzzle though, became an obsession “verging on mental insanity,” he said.

He called an old post about a conversation with Sallie on The Hull Truth dead accurate: “My hands are wasting away,” he told her. “I don’t want to be the guy that said should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. I want to build the boat.”

Sallie replied: “You mean the one you have been drawing for ten years?”

“I knew I had something, I just had to push through,” he said, then chuckled. “Now granted, that was 2007-08, right when the economy was just really crushing it. Total f—ing dumpster fire.”

Freeman designed a very specific and proprietary 33-foot long, 10-foot, 10-inch wide hull. Shaped with a high freeboard, considerable flare and graceful, curving gunwales, she’d weigh 8000 pounds, and Freeman calculated—and prayed—would be more stable and fuel efficient than anything. He showed the plans to Frank Middleton at Middleton Boatworks south of Charleston and asked if he’d be willing to lay up a cold molded, wood cored hull. “I didn’t have time to build it from the ground up while I’m working, you know, eight, nine hours a day,” he said.

Billy, invited to the White House as part of a “Made in America” showcase in 2019.

Photo: Sallie Freeman

Once Middleton had the hull to primer, Freeman trailered it to a big old garage behind his house and built the console, T-top, leaning post, livewells and did all the wiring and hardware. Logged in as “Bully,” on The Hull Truth, he posted progress pictures of the build, asked for feedback and gaining the attention of a crew of hardcore Louisiana fishing guides. “They were running catamarans—Glacier Bays,” he said. “They were looking for what I was looking for.”

Freeman quit his job. His professional life was now riding on hull number one. He trailered her down to Venice, Louisiana for her inaugural trial. “Hell yeah, I was nervous,” he said laughing out loud. “I was just standing there like a deer in the headlights. They thought I was some weirdo. Like I was Rain Man. I was so scared to death. This is going to work, or I’m gonna be in construction in six months.”

Capt. Mike Ellis’s December 28, 2007 post on The Hull Truth immortalized the day:

The boat is badass. I ran every other boat out there that I thought would be a good boat for our conditions in the northern Gulf but none came close to the Freeman. One word of warning: don’t take a test ride unless you are ready to write a check for it. With every boat I have ever owned I could sit down and write a list of what I do and don’t like, and what I wish the builder would have done different. To say the least, I am very picky when it comes to my “office.” But, there is nothing I would have had him do different.

Wiring up a Freeman 28 on a late summer’s day.

Freeman built hull number two from the stringers up in a garage out on rural Cainhoy Road. As word spread, orders started trickling in, the former 50,000 foot factory for Renken and Sea Fox boats came available in a small industrial area a few miles up the road from Folly Beach. Freeman signed a lease and kept soliciting online feedback. One of his followers was a fishing fanatic from South Carolina’s upstate named Scott Cothran, a product design engineer of 14 years at a Michelin campus that built 25,000 tires a day. Freeman invited him out on the 33. “I told him that catamarans were ugly and dumb and would never work and that I’m a monohull guy,” Cothran laughs. “And he basically said, ‘Yeah, yeah, just come, just give me an honest feedback.’ And well, he really broke that whole—when I said ‘ugly and don’t perform’ thing. I’ll never forget the day we finally did go fishing; I was riding back completely blown away.”

Cothran asked Freeman about something that was now puzzling him given the boat’s qualities. “I said, ‘Why aren’t you taking off? Why aren’t you bigger?’ He said, ‘Hey, I’m just kind of a one-man band at this point. We’ve just got a small group and just need some help.’ Engineers, are by definition risk averse. But I picked up my wife and two kids and we moved to Charleston to work with Billy. My first day on the job. I said, ‘What about a desk? Billy handed me a credit card and said, ‘Go to Staples. Don’t spend too much money.’

The factory leaked when it rained, and Cothran’s job was—and remains—an ad-hoc trial by fire. “I would love to say that it was my great leadership in the marketing arena that led us to where we are,” he said. “But it was just putting people in front of it and letting them experience what I experienced that day, and driving around in it.”

The author’s son riding shotgun during a rough day at the office.

Freeman’s followed the 33 with a 34—basically a 33 with a swim platform and a stepped hull. He then stepped back in size with a stepped hull offshore 29. “An incredible boat,” said Freeman, “But the problem in 2010-2011, was getting someone to pay $200,000 for a 29-footer. Freeman wasn’t well-known. People weren’t just lining up. You could go buy a 28 or 30-foot high production boat for $170 grand. And I was like, well, I’m not giving these boats away for $160 grand.”

So, Freemans got bigger—there was a 37, then a 42, and then Billy’s favorite, the 47. When I drove the 47 on that April day, we not only ran it 60-plus knots on the Intracoastal but charged out through that harbor windswell at 35 knots. Running into the waves, I kept doing deep squats to absorb the expected impacts. Then I noticed Cothran wasn’t squatting at all—just standing there laughing at me. “We call that the ‘Freeman Squat’,” he said.

Back in 2017, the Freeman concept caught the eye of Jimmy Buffett and his captain Vinnie Lasorsa. The story is well told (for the full version, tune into my 2023 Power & Motoryacht podcast with Cothran). “Vinnie calls and starts asking very deliberate, design-oriented, educated questions,” Cothran said. But he wouldn’t reveal the buyer. Normally, said Cothran, a Freeman buyer is “a successful, type A personality. They like to talk about themselves, they like tell to tell you what their successes are. And heck, we enjoy hearing those stories. Then you get a client that calls and he won’t tell you any of that? The more questions he asked, I started asking questions. ‘Okay Vinnie, who are you with?’ ‘Well, umm, I have a private buyer. ‘Well, who is said private buyer?’ ‘I can’t tell you. I’m just imagining it’s some competitor boat company. So, I said, ‘You should come up with a better story.’

Despite disrespecting the captain of the Son of a Son of a Sailor, Lasorsa persisted—and eventually, a Key West charter captain asked Cothran why he was blowing Vinnie off. “He goes, ‘He works for Jimmy Buffett.’ I was like, ‘Oohhh, okay. Well, we kind of screwed this up.’”

Cothran called Vinnie: “He’s like, ‘You know, I shouldn’t have to work so hard to get your attention.’ I was like, ‘I understand. But you also shouldn’t have been asking such pointed questions without explaining that your boss was extremely knowledgeable.’ I mean, Buffett’s been doing this forever.”

Buffett flew into Charleston on a blustery morning and Billy took him out on a 34. “My fondest memory is when we were running out of the harbor, past Fort Sumter,” said Freeman. “It was choppy. We’ve been running ten minutes. Jimmy looks at me and goes, ‘Where the hell are we going?’ I’m like ‘I’m taking you on a real sea trial.’ He got the picture real quick on what the boat was all about.”

Freeman Boatworks’ flagship 47 with the hammer down amidst the sort of seas she’s built do business in.

Photo: Chance Craven

Buffett wanted a boat for strike missions to the Bahamas and Gulf Stream, but with something that basically didn’t exist—a climate-controlled pilot house. Freeman had built one pilothouse boat, for a North Carolina buyer. So, Lasorsa and Buffett convinced the owner—a huge Parrothead—to sell them the boat. Buffet was so enamored with it, they then asked Freeman to build them a custom pilot house 42. Freeman was torn. He had taken the plunge into a huge new factory. He was building production center consoles as fast as he could. Ultimately, a pilot house custom was just too far out of the Freeman wheelhouse. “I didn’t have the bandwidth,” Freeman said. “I didn’t have the personnel. I mean, you’ve got to have craftsmen to do what he wants. To do it would have been a foolish move out of pure ego. You have just have to build what you build, and sometimes tell people ‘No.’ And usually their ideas aren’t bad. It’s just, we can’t do all that—we just can’t. So ‘No’ is the number one best answer. You can always come back from ‘no.’ You can pay hell coming back from a ‘yes.’”

Lasorsa and Buffett combined their genius into a solution. Freeman built and motored a bare 42-foot hull and then shipped the unit to Roy Merritt in Ft. Lauderdale for the pilot house. The result was the seafoam green Last Mango, arguably one of the coolest one-off powerboats ever built. Now, Roy Merritt is building his own pilot house catamaran. Freeman could be pissed about that, but he takes the fact that one of the most revered sportfisher builders alive is now building a cat, in stride. “I’ve sold more boats than anybody would have ever imagined—Including myself,” he said. “And the more competition I get, the more boats I sell. They validate it. It validates the concept.”

The new Freeman 28 getting some air time. The author found coming off waves like these like landing on a cushion.

Photo: Chance Craven

Today, Freeman Boatworks employs over 250. On a chilly January afternoon, I found Billy scrutinizing hull laminations and wisecracking with Cothran and other employees at the factory. He’s still intimately involved in the design process. The sales, and income, have though, allowed much deeper investments in R&D staff. “Billy’s given the freedom to a lot of folks here, and the engineering teams, to explore ideas,” said Cothran. “Now it’s not, hey, we can’t necessarily afford to do that, in many cases it’s we can’t afford not to do it.”

If there’s one downside to working with Billy, Cothran said, it’s simply that a man he today calls both a boss and friend is his own biggest critic. “The advantages are, you’re on the leading edge of the catamaran world and designing a great boat and gaining experience every day,” he said. “The disadvantage? Is going fishing with him. It’s just always ‘We can do this. We can change this. Let’s do this.’ I’m like, ‘Can we just enjoy the day fishing?’ I’ve been doing this for over ten years now. And he’s still the same guy. Still never satisfied. We just, you know, ran a boat yesterday and whole time he’s tweaking stuff, tweaking stuff. And I’m like, ‘Just enjoy the sunset.’ But, I mean, it’s definitely led us to where we are. And we’re sitting in our two year old facility now—and are already looking at plans to make this even bigger.”

To Freeman, work and life are now simply, inextricably combined. His 18-year-old son Ben is both a sander and test pilot, Sallie’s still a sounding board for big picture decisions and 250 Charlestonians are now part of an extended family, that like any family, both stresses him out, and brings immeasurable happiness. “I’ll keep doing it as long as the quality of the boats and the quality of my life—my mental well-being is solid,” he said. “I mean, we can do it. We can do anything.”

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This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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