Randy Ramsey: From Accidental Boatbuilder to Industry Legend

Uncovering the Legacy of Jarrett Bay's Randy Ramsey: A Journey of Passion, Innovation and Community
Randy Ramsey in front of a scenic view with a sport-fishing boat in the background.
Called an accidental boatbuilder, Jarrett Bay co-founder Randy Ramsey is still going strong. Luke Pearson

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Randy Ramsey, known largely as the co-founder of North Carolina’s Jarrett Bay Boatworks, is a man of fascinating talents, dreams, friends and faith. He’s been dubbed an accidental boatbuilder by some, but digging deeper into his life reveals a great number of influences, events and character traits that make his custom boatbuilding career look more like a destiny fulfilled.

Anyone approaching Ramsey for the first or even the hundredth time is met with his gleaming blue eyes, a warm demeanor and an outstretched hand. What makes him special is an ability to make quick friends, and an intuition for recognizing others’ potential and developing their interests and talents—a born leader and a man of great faith.

Ramsey didn’t hail from a family of boatbuilders, nor did he come from the Outer Banks proper like many of his peers. But what he lacked in pedigree he made up for with passion and the drive to soak up the generosity and helping hints provided by those around him. The results of his early ambition and determination were a new breed of custom Carolina boats that quickly proved their mettle as capable offshore fishing machines that also became luxurious pieces of art.

A young Randy Ramsey standing next to a white marlin.
a young Randy Ramsey with a white marlin landed out of Grayson’s Marina, now the Harkers Island Fishing Center, in the early 1980s. Courtesy Jarrett Bay Boatworks

Nature and Nurture

Ramsey, like all of us, is a product of his environment and upbringing. He came from a supportive family that offered him a wide variety of experiences, many of which involved fishing and hunting, but also in operating marinas and hardware stores.

“Some of my earliest memories are of being on a boat on Pamlico Sound,” he says. “My dad, Cab Ramsey, was an avid fisherman, and we trailered along the coast just about every weekend. There was also my uncle Forrest, who ran charters down in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. When I was 11 or 12, we went offshore and caught some dolphin and kingfish. I said, ‘You tell me I can go fishing and get paid? I want to do this!’” From that day forward, young Ramsey started logging all his hours on the water to put toward his US Coast Guard captain’s license requirements.

His family moved around from Kinston, North Carolina, to Atlantic Beach and finally Harkers Island, where Ramsey was immersed in the rich culture of the local charter industry and accepted into their backyard boatbuilding brotherhood. The Ramseys’ neighbor Burgess Lewis—a famous builder in his own right—helped Randy fashion his first boat, a 16-foot skiff made largely out of two sheets of plywood and some lengths of juniper.

Black and white image of a small boat docked in a marina.
Starflite was a 1967 43-foot Tiffany powered by a single Detroit Diesel 8V71. Courtesy Jarrett Bay Boatworks

Ramsey sat for his captain’s exam on his 18th birthday, then turned around and helmed his first half-day charter the very next morning. He was the rare young man who knew exactly what he wanted in life and who also had the drive and determination to get it done—right away.

While working charters, he met another local captain, named Jim Luxton, and the two formed a partnership, booking guests and sharing boats. “Jim and I were heavily invested in each other while running charters. We ran into issues with finding good crew, so we started thinking about ways to train people to work for us,” Ramsey explains. The two settled on a rather ingenious way to both cultivate new mates and increase awareness about the rich fishery off their coast. In 1981, they opened the Harkers Island Fishing School. Classes were of great value to students and offered an intense amount of learning packed into one weekend. But more than anything, Ramsey discovered its success was more about the camaraderie. “People came back year after year because of the relationships they made,” he says. Around this same time, Luxton and Ramsey made a trip to the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center to fish on Sportsman with Capt. Omie Tillett. They were blown away by how the boat performed in comparison with other boats they had run. Soon thereafter, their heading was certain—they would set out to build a similar boat to use in their charter business.

Image of Randy Ramsey fishing.
catching bluefish aboard Jim Luxton’s Second Glance off the Outer Banks. Courtesy Jarrett Bay Boatworks

Ramsey’s lifestyle the next few years mimicked those of his mentors and peers in the local fleet—running charters spring through fall and then building boats each winter. And for Ramsey in particular, it was much more than that, since he also led duck hunts, worked in the East’ard Variety Store with his parents, and took many more odd jobs to make ends meet. “No one told me you couldn’t make a living at charter fishing alone,” he admits.

Ramsey gained experience and invaluable teachings from Myron “Ace” Harris while working at Harris Boatworks, and soaked up daily knowledge from local boatbuilding legend Ray Davis, whose shop was also nearby. As time passed, Luxton and Ramsey paid more visits up north to Tillett and in the fall of 1986 set out with the plan and a loan to build their first boat, which they named Sensation. Tillett and many other key characters with Sportsman Boatworks helped with advice on the methods, materials and a lofting plan that finally raised the 52-footer off the page.

Challenges and Innovations

“Getting the first boat launched was a big challenge,” Ramsey says. “We were awfully young. We had limited experience and were building a boat unlike any that had been built in our area before. If I’d been any older or more seasoned, I’m not sure I would have thought it was a good idea. But she was born out of necessity, and I’m proud she’s still running charters today.”

Three men standing by a fish.
Luxton and Ramsey won the largest sailfish category in the 1982 Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament with this fish. Courtesy Jarrett Bay Boatworks

Following the splash and success of Sensation, the next few commissions were boats built for local captains such as Peter Dubose, Ben Green and Dew Forbes, which forged not only lifelong friendships but also business partners and careers with Jarrett Bay—a true family atmosphere. When you consider the importance the community of backyard builders had in Ramsey’s journey, the people who were to manifest the demand for his products—often at just the right times—were just as essential to his success.
Hull No. 5 famously started with just a handshake between Ramsey and fellow slip mate Jack Huddle. Huddle’s company and family would later be instrumental in the development of the Jarrett Bay Marine Industrial Park (now known as Safe Harbor Jarrett Bay) on Core Creek in Beaufort. Three generations of the Huddles have commissioned five custom Jarrett Bay builds to date. Along the way, the boats evolved from practical charter rigs to yacht-finished cold-molded masterpieces. Boatyard operations that once relied on a dilapidated shed and borrowed tractor are now completed in state-of-the-art high-bay facilities using marine travel lifts serving up to 300 tons—a testament to the men’s vision and faith in one another’s potential.

Over time there has been an immense number of changes in how the boats are built: plank on frame to cold-molded, and today, where vacuum bagging, CNC routing and carbon fiber all play their roles. Propulsion strategies have gone from single to twin screws, a few boats with pod drives, and even titanium shafts and foiling prototypes. As the company grew, they were always challenged to try different things and overcome the limitation du jour, be it a maxed-out workspace, shortages in supply and labor, or a customer’s wild demand. “But we’ve always stayed true to our roots,” Ramsey says. “Our boats still have a tremendous amount of shape, with a lot of tumblehome pushed way up forward—the way I like it. We still have that Carolina flare, more than others these days.”

A crew of boat builders standing next to an unfinished boat hull.
the early Jarrett Bay team in Marshallberg, North Carolina, with Hull No. 8, built as Valinda. Courtesy Jarrett Bay Boatworks

All these accomplishments are well chronicled, and of course the pursuit of faster boats and bigger fish is always at the heart of Jarrett Bay’s ethos, but it’s also a story about people, friendships and relationships. By many accounts, Ramsey has been gracious and eager to pay forward the favors that the other local builders extended to him early on. “I’ve tried to be an open book, and I think that by continuing to help others, it makes our industry better, stronger and moving forward,” he says. “The way I see it, however I can provide a courtesy to someone, it is nothing but a positive.”

Competition Among Friends

The boat industry is an infamously small world spun by thought leaders and craftsmen taking their skills and ideas with them while making various career moves. The results are hundreds of closely connected companies—one brand often begets another, and the most successful inspires a string of related builds or spinoff brands that run the gamut from close collaborators to begrudged competitors. If you look at boatbuilders as a network of extended families, inevitably arguments will boil up and loyalties are tested. At any rate, though, there is an air of respect.

Understandably, while quickly growing the construction, sales and service business at Jarrett Bay, Ramsey faded away from directly running charters himself, but instead started enjoying world-class fishing trips to places such as Mexico and Panama with friends and customers. “Puerto Aventuras back then [in the 2000s] was special,” he says. “The atmosphere was magical because of the people and relationships. Guys like John Bayliss, Tim Hyde, Mike Merritt, Danny Hearn—it was a who’s who, all tied up in the same place and hanging out on the docks together.” Crews from Florida, Texas and North Carolina were all competing for bragging rights, from top boat all the way down to winning the
infamous annual bike race.

The Hawkers Island sign with fish strung up underneath it.
A day’s charter catch out of the newly renamed Harkers Island Fishing Center on Starflite. Courtesy Jarrett Bay Boatworks

Since then, he says that magic has been re-created in locations such as Bermuda. “I’ve fished with a lot of customers in these places and built boats for some fine people,” he says. “One of my favorite memories was winning the Blue Marlin World Cup on Blank Check with Joey Johnson and Danny Hearn. That was in 2013. The fish was 668 pounds, and then we got to stay up through the night watching the other time zones trying to beat our fish.”

Friendships between the boatbuilding elite are of course competitive, but Ramsey’s relationship with Paul Spencer and other Outer Banks custom builders also has plenty of ribbing and playfulness. As rumor has it, Spencer used to enjoy sneaking a live possum or two into others’ fish boxes at the Hatteras Marlin Club, and it wasn’t above Ramsey and others to repay those pranks from time to time. That relationship among builders developed over the years into seriously close friendships, as it did with the handful of others who share the same set of unique problems that come with building elite sport-fishing boats for exceptionally discerning owners.

“My first memory of Randy was when we started fishing the Big Rock in the early ’80s,” recalls Viking Yachts President and CEO Pat Healey. “Now he is the face of the Big Rock tournament. I admired the hard work he was putting in then, but we didn’t get to do anything professionally together until much later.” The two have a common sensibility about openly sharing knowledge to help propel their industry. “We’ve spent countless hours at boat shows together discussing different engines and applications. We all have one goal and priority in mind, and that’s to build the best boat for our customers,” Healey explains.

A sport-fishing boat on the water with waves splashing against its hull.
Fast and luxurious, the 64-foot Rebelette is a superb example of the next generation of Jarrett Bay boats. Courtesy Jarrett Bay Boatworks / Luke Pearson

Making the Most of It

As Ramsey’s longtime friend and owner of Bluewater Supply, Tripp Nelson, points out: “Randy is a workaholic who loves challenges. If his mind isn’t applied to work, he’s thinking of what his next project is.” It’s that tenacity and entrepreneurial drive that led to the creation of multiple other businesses, including reviving the East’ard store and developing a coworking space in downtown Beaufort, in addition to the many facets that Jarrett Bay has branched into over the years. Besides building and servicing the region’s best boats, Jarrett Bay’s efforts have included the creation of clothing and furniture lines, designed to deliver the Carolina Flare lifestyle to the public.

A red-hulled sport-fishing boat on the water.
An updated Starflite was a red-hulled 47-footer built by Myron Harris and launched in spring 1986. She served as an inspiration for Jarrett Bay, which began building boats in the fall of that year. Courtesy Jarrett Bay Boatworks

All the while, Ramsey has been busy applying himself not just within the boat industry, but also locally in Carteret County and throughout North Carolina, serving on dozens of nonprofit boards and committees. He has been an ardent supporter of the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament for more than three decades.

Currently he is serving on the board, as presenting sponsor of the event and also manning the tournament radio. With Big Rock Radio enjoyed by thousands of listeners in over 70 countries, Ramsey’s genuine character and willingness to help others is now on full display internationally. From delivering the morning prayers (another tradition started by Tillett) to managing tournament traffic, where he recognizes most of the captains by voice alone, and scrambling to help any boat in need of assistance, emergency parts or radio relays home—Ramsey navigates it all with a calm grace and good humor. “It’s been a pleasure to watch the evolution from the early days of the competition to today’s $1.6 million in charity giving,” he says of the Big Rock. “This impacts our state and fishing community economically, but also for conservation it leaves a lasting legacy for our blue marlin fishery.”

Black and white image of Randy Ramsey at the helm.
Charter fishing on Starflite instilled a passion in Ramsey that remains strong today. Courtesy Jarrett Bay Boatworks

His philanthropic endeavors reach far beyond Big Rock Landing and local projects on Harkers Island, where he’s behind the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, Ramsey Youth Center and Habitat for Humanity contributions. At NC State University, he has funded an equestrian center, boosted athletics and served in many governance roles. Currently he is serving as the chairman of the North Carolina university system’s board of governors, working to improve higher education throughout the state. It’s an impressive career arc for that aspiring young angler whose supportive parents let him forego higher learning for that captain’s license. “I do believe if you’re lucky enough to receive gifts, it’s important to give back in a meaningful way. As a member of any community, it is incumbent on us to help others,” he says.

Read Next: Interview with Jarrett Bay Founder Randy Ramsey.

Jarrett Bay Boatworks and Bluewater Yacht Sales were both acquired by Safe Harbor Marinas in 2022, and Ramsey’s new role as vice president of operations marks the next leg of his lifelong journey. “Officially I’m managing the yacht sales operations, but I still enjoy overseeing the boatbuilding and working with those owners,” he says. “This was succession planning. Now the people that invested in the marine park—our employees and customers—will always have Jarrett Bay to fall back on. It will be around longer than I will.”

A group of men stand around and chat.
“But we’ve always stayed true to our roots. Our boats still have a tremendous amount of shape, with a lot of tumblehome pushed way up forward—the way I like it. We still have that Carolina flare, more than others these days.” Luke Pearson

It’s abundantly clear that he was born to build boats and he’ll likely be doing it until he can’t any longer. Transferring ownership is a means to ensure the legacy of all the generous contributors Randy Ramsey has encountered will live on, while also continuing to create opportunities for future builders and industry leaders to fulfill their own dreams and destinies.

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