Photos by Tom Spencer
Donnie Caison built himself a boat, and by doing so, launched an accidental career in custom boatbuilding.
Donnie Caison never intended to become a custom boatbuilder; he just didn’t want to sink a bunch of money into a project to make an old boat new again. He and a buddy were discussing going in on a classic 31 Bertram and rehabbing it with new motors, paint and interior, giving the boat the full treatment.
“I started crunching the numbers, and I told him we’re going to have $100,000 in a 35-year-old boat that we couldn’t sell for more than $50,000 if it was perfect,” Caison says. “I said ‘I bet I could build a boat for $150,000.’ He didn’t think I could do it, and I said ‘Just watch me.’”
Caison, who never studied naval architecture, decided to do his own design work. “I went to the library and checked out every book I could find on boat construction and design,” he says. It was the late 1990s; there was no Google. “I started going to local yards, measuring boats on the hard that I had rode on or heard about to figure out why they did what they did.”
With his ideas formulating, he got to drawing, putting his thoughts and dreams on paper. “I drew 100 boats before I settled on the one I wanted to build.” He chose to go with a 37-foot express style, twin-diesel sportfish with a curvaceous bow flare and roomy cockpit.
Caison built a scale model of the hull and wanted to get a second opinion from someone he respected, so he brought his model and line drawings to Randy Ramsey and his team at Jarrett Bay. “They were fascinated with the model and said ‘It looks like a pretty good boat. You better go build it.’ So I did,” Caison says.
The 37 was not Caison’s first building project: “I’ve been building something all of my life,” he says. At the age of 16 he became a licensed plumber in North Carolina. He worked for a large site developer, installing drains and sewer lines. He did that for 15 years, working his way up to general superintendent. The owner of the company was the first person who took him offshore fishing.
“I instantly fell in love with it,” Caison says. “Within two days of that first fishing trip, I bought my first boat.”
It was an older Wellcraft, and he blew a powerhead on the outboard on his first day out as a boat owner. He purchased a new motor, but it had a 25-inch shaft, not a 20-inch shaft like the previous motor. So, he raised the transom on the boat. “That was my first foray into glass work,” he says. His next boat was a 25-foot Hydra-Sport, a fixer-upper that he purchased from an insurance company after the boat was involved in an accident. He definitely had a knack for customization, but building a boat from scratch requires detailed plans, a vast understanding of weight distribution and balance, a shed, tooling … a seemingly endless list of tasks and materials.
He went to work in a shed behind his house. Two years later, working nights and weekends, the boat was ready for sea trials. Caison named the boat Last Request, a name inspired by an ex-spouse who was not so enthralled with the boat project. “She said she hated the boat and ought to kill the guy who got it all started. My friend Bobby sticks his hand up and says, ‘Don’t I get a last request?’ It was a sweet little rig,” he says. “After that I went full-time fishing.” Life as a captain suited him, fishing long days and doing boat work in the cool North Carolina winter months.
His fishing life took a turn when Caison ran into Ramsey while helping his friend Peter Plott, who was building a line of skiffs with Carolina looks called Bayshore Boats, at the Miami boat show. “We were setting up the booth, and here comes Randy Ramsey,” Caison says. By this point, Caison was taking on more projects and had just completed a 58-foot hull for another builder in Wilmington. Ramsey asked him how many hours it took to build and was shocked by Caison’s quick build time, roughly six months. “He said it wasn’t possible, especially since I didn’t have a crew. It was just me and a helper.” Ramsey told Caison to give him a call after the show. He had a project for him.
Caison went to see Ramsey on a lay day while fishing the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. Ramsey had a set of plans and a check for Caison sitting on his desk. Caison worked on a 42 for Jarrett Bay, which required Caison add on to his shop. From there he got busier and busier. After four years of charter fishing, Caison sold his original build and invested into his growing business. He christened it Caison Yachts and opened his shop in Hampstead, North Carolina, just a few minutes from his home. The boats got bigger, and more complicated. Repair jobs and refits filtered in.
“It wasn’t the plan. At that point I was happy as a fisherman; I didn’t want to do this kind of hard work,” Caison says with a laugh. Twenty years later, his boats stand toe-to-toe with the best custom sportfishers on the water today. His latest build, hull number 17, is a purpose-built offshore hunting machine. Designed to make long runs out of Kona, Hawaii, to find giant blue marlin prowling the far-off sea mounts nearly 200 miles from the dock, the 54-footer is tricked out with the latest fishing tools, including a Seakeeper, tuna tubes, plenty of fuel and an Omni Sonar system. Caison finished the boat in 30 months, despite three hurricanes and a pandemic.
“It’s an upscale charter boat, with more of a boy’s layout—two bunk rooms and a small master. They wanted to overnight with anglers so it’s not necessarily set up as a family boat, though you could use it to island hop,” Caison says. “It’s rigged to fish.”
The boat is run by Capt. Bryan Toney, and they added a tow bit to the bow so they can take it along with a mother ship to even more remote locales. It’s got a pair of 1150 C18 Cats and runs 38 knots on the pins. Caison had to make the boat no longer than 54 feet with a beam of 17 feet to fit the travel lift and slip in Kona.
“The boat is set up exactly for what we need,” Toney says. “Donnie was great. He does it all, from design to the whole build. We knew this going in, as we wanted a boat focused on the fishing. The frou-frou stuff was not as important.”
But make no mistake about it, the boat, Snafu, is a yacht. An air-conditioned mezzanine keeps anglers cool, and there’s a Garmin screen right on the wing so everyone can watch for the sea monsters that Kona is known for. And should they catch a world record, there won’t be a problem dealing with it. The tuna door is wide enough for a 2,000-pound fish.
“We are strictly targeting blue marlin, very big marlin to be even more precise. Everything was built around that,” Toney says.
Listening to his clients and building exactly what they want is something Caison excels at. Perhaps that’s why his yard is busier than ever, but more likely, that’s the result of the final product you find offshore, no matter what the sea conditions.
“Donnie’s a good student of the industry, and he remains a student by finding ways to keep improving what he builds,” Ramsey says. “I’m proud of what he’s accomplished, of who he is and how he treats people.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.