Many of the distinct, beautiful characteristics of a Carolina sport-fisher — the sweeping broken sheer, gently curved tumblehome, warped plane bottom and flared bow — were influenced by a number of boatbuilders. However, one of the most dynamic patriarchs was undoubtedly Omie Tillett. While he was only able to complete eight hulls because of an allergy to epoxy, his influence continues today with John Bayliss, Paul Mann and Jarrett Bay’s Randy Ramsey, among scores of others.
A Fishing Lineage
Tillett comes from a family of fishermen that includes his younger brother Tony, who is still fishing out of Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, today. Omie began working with his father, Sam Tillett, at the age of 10, and by 20, Omie was running his first boat. As many Carolina charter captains soon learn, a new or different boat is often needed in order for them to keep fishing in the challenging conditions, so Omie approached his longtime friend and fellow fisherman Warren O’Neal.
During the winter months, Tillett had fished in Florida, where he visited Rybovich Boatworks. After returning home, he learned that a Rybovich boat was close by, so he and O’Neal traveled from the Outer Banks to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to personally check out the various design innovations for themselves.
In fall 1960, construction began on Sportsman. In spring 1961, O’Neal, with the help of Tillet and Lee Perry, launched Sportsman — the classic Carolina boat was born. Tillet continued to work for O’Neal for several years, until he started Sportsman Boatworks in 1973. He built many familiar boats that still ply the offshore waters of North Carolina today, including Skylark (now Salvation), Temptation, Carolinian (now Rigged Up) and Brothers Pride; he started the hull for Mary One (now Coverage).
Imitation as Flattery
When asked about his unique designs, Tillett simply says, “I borrowed what I liked about other builders’ boats and combined the features. I give all the credit to Warren O’Neal, Rybovich and the Harkers Island boys. I didn’t invent any of those things myself.”
While Tillett might not have created the designs, he did implement practical features into his boats that are incorporated into many new builds today. As with many of the early Carolina boatbuilders, he fished daily and continually sought ways to improve his boats, whether through functionality or an improved ride. Bayliss says, “Omie Tillett was a great fisherman who could take the practical knowledge and make it a part of the boats he built, while still making them beautiful and efficient.”
Tillett assisted Bayliss with his charter boat, Tarheel. “It is a single-engine boat, and as was typical back then, you would have a single shaft and propeller with two rudders,” Bayliss notes. “Omie had an idea to put everything in line by going to a single large rudder aft of the propeller but adding a ‘flanking rudder’ forward of the strut. The flanking rudder’s purpose was solely for backing down. Tarheel was set up perfectly for this because we had two fuel tanks and the center companionway was wide open for this experimental project. The second winter
I had the boat, Omie helped me devise and install this system, and it was a big success. Fuel is probably your largest expense as a charter fisherman, and Omie’s idea saved us almost 10 percent a day in fuel, and gave me another knot of speed by reducing drag.”
While there were many others building boats on the Outer Banks, Tillett separated himself with his look and quality, something that profoundly motivated Mann. “My designs and lines are still influenced by Omie — the traditional Carolina style with some softened radiuses and tweaks are still evident in all my boats,” he says.
A Pioneering Influence
Tillett’s impact on the Outer Banks did not begin or end with boatbuilding — he showed his younger fellow captains a kind of brotherly love with his actions and words. Mann tells a story about when a storm blasted Roanoke Island and flooded most of the island. When folks cleaned up, they put all their trash on the side of the road, including their lawn mowers that had been ruined by the saltwater flooding. Early one morning, Tillett called Mann and asked him for some help, so they drove around in Tillett’s truck, picking up as many mowers as they could fit in the back. Tillett said he would get them all running again, which he did; he then set the mowers on the side of the road for anyone who was in need to take one home.
He was constantly giving back to the community and to his fellow fishermen. Ramsey says, “Anytime you spend time with Omie, you leave a better person. He has such a positive attitude, and he truly cares about each person he interacts with.”
Tillett was a pioneer in sport fishing. Along with his father, Sam, he organized the group of boats in Dykstra’s Canal to form what is now the Oregon Inlet charter fleet. While Tillett was building boats, and long after he stopped in the early 1980s, he continued to fish. Tillett started a tradition of blessing the fleet on the VHF radio as they ventured out to the fishing grounds. That tradition remains today with other captains and at many tournaments throughout the region. In fact, until a few years ago, Tillett would personally travel to tournaments to bless the fleet each morning.
The Legend of Brothers Pride
Tillett’s boatbuilding legacy remains with his boats, and the last he fully completed was for the Bonney family: the 54-foot Brothers Pride, christened in 1980. In winter 2018, Brothers Pride stayed in the Bayliss boatyard in Wanchese, North Carolina, for the last round of a three-year repair-and-restoration plan. Thirty-eight years prior, Al Bonney got a call from Tillett at 5:30 a.m. on a chilly November morning. Tillett needed a deposit for a boat, because the lumber had arrived.
It had taken Bonney a few years to persuade Tillett to build a boat for him and his brother Larry, but this particular phone call made it official. Years earlier, Al came to know Tillett during the build of the famous Temptation, when he began visiting his boat shop on Roanoke Island. This turned into a dual captain-and-mate job on Temptation for Al and Larry. Temptation‘s stellar first year fulfilled a promise of greatness that seemed inherent in Tillett’s boats: It caught three blue marlin its first day, and 200 white marlin in the first year.
Once Tillett laid the keel on Brothers Pride, the Bonney brothers moved to Manteo and joined the build crew. A mere 10 months since that early morning phone call, the Bonneys christened Brothers Pride on August 20, 1980. It went straight to Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, to start fishing.
At the time, Brothers Pride might have been just another sport-fisher. Today, we know it to be the last boat from a legendary craftsman, as well as an incredibly collective project in which many famous characters were a part of the build process — men who set the bar high in both sport fishing and character.
On the Move
Once settled at Oregon Inlet, the next 14 years of Brothers Pride‘s life followed a certain cadence. Three specific points in time ruled its movements from Hatteras to Rudee Inlet, Virginia, over the course of a year. Mid-April marked the beginning of its fishing season in Hatteras; July 3 — the Bonneys’ mother’s birthday — saw it relocating to Oregon Inlet for the summer fishing season; and Labor Day meant it was time for its northern migration to Rudee Inlet, where the white marlin season continued until the fish moved on for the year. For the winter, Brothers Pride spent its time under shelter in Great Bridge, Virginia, until the weather warmed, prompting a move back south to Hatteras, where the pattern repeated once again.
Along the way, Brothers Pride established quite the reputation. “Tillett builds his boats with that hum,” Bonney says, chuckling. Indeed, Brothers Pride fished often, and well, as a prominent member of the local charter-fishing fleets between Oregon and Rudee inlets. Its owners fished a number of tournaments and placed favorably. They excelled at catching blue marlin, and most uniquely, Brothers Pride remains a centerpiece of the Bonney family even now, 38 years since its christening.
Humbly, Al Bonney places Brothers Pride‘s allure to blue marlin as a product of his crews’ propensity to fish for them more often than other species. As a sport-fishing community, we know differently: A distinct combination of pedigree and an unending level of commitment from the Bonney family creates a special environment behind the transom that repeatedly calls an exceptional class of fish toward the cockpit.
More than a Face-lift
Today, Brothers Pride is no longer a charter boat; it is now run by the Bonneys’ all-family, multigenerational crew, which simply loves to fish. Their adoration for Brothers Pride was supremely evident when they embarked on a three-year plan to extensively restore and repair the iconic build.
In 2015, the heavy lifting began when it was repowered with Caterpillar C12s and a full engine-room upgrade. It also received new wheels, shafts, seacocks, spray rails and a flybridge console. The conclusion of this initial boatyard stay marked Brothers Pride‘s immediate return to fishing and a chance to chase a few more blue marlin before its next series of repairs began.
The following winter, Brothers Pride and its committed owners retreated to the boatyard to tackle the replacement of the water tank, through-hull fittings, struts and steering. The lazarette area was repaired and repainted, followed by the installation of new rudders, rudder tubes, rudder shelf and a trim-tab rework.
Back in Action
While these upgrades were necessary, Bonney wondered whether the change in bottom gear would result in decreased action behind the transom. He laughs as he says, “I told John [Bayliss] not to change her hum too much, it was just fine like it was.”
The boat’s first day fishing after the running-gear changes proved that the hum was still there. At 7:15 a.m., Bonney’s youngest grandson was hooked up to his first blue marlin, a nice 300-pounder. They released the fish in just 15 minutes. The hum of Brothers Pride, along with a pink Ilander Express on the left short rigger, was an attractive scenario once again, just like all those years before.
With the mechanical upgrades complete, a final set of repairs remained: bringing the exterior back to life. Various fiberglass repairs were needed as the hull was meticulously brought back to a smooth, fair surface. New primer and topcoat added a fine level of shine. The toe rail, half-round, rocket launcher and salon door were all transformed to a beautiful faux-teak surface. Finally, new outriggers, a new frame and significant upgrades to the existing hardtop finalized the exterior repairs.
For Bayliss boatyard manager Judd Beatty, the last three winters of transformation on Brothers Pride have been pretty special. “After many conversations with Bonney about the different aspects of Brothers Pride‘s upcoming repairs and history, it didn’t take me long to realize the quality of person I had met,” he says. “People like Al Bonney and his family don’t come along every day, and boats like Brothers Pride are one in a million.”
After three winters of extensive planning, and purposeful commitment, Brothers Pride was rechristened on April 6, 2018.
Read More: Anatomy of a Sport-Fishing Boat Refit
Over the course of this restoration, many have asked, why the name Brothers Pride? For Bonney, the secret to the name is embedded in the construction, repairs and the life of the boat itself. “Every person that has worked on this boat from the very beginning took great pride in what they were doing,” he says. “Everyone that has touched this boat, we were and still are a group of friends — really more like brothers — that came together to build something real. I’m always proud of that.”
Brothers Pride will spend its summers at a few local tournaments, and fishing for fun with its family. Just like it’s supposed to do.