Paul Mann: A Lifetime of Boatbuilding

In 1988, Paul Mann splashed his first custom boat, which he built in a barn, during North Carolina’s fishing offseason. The Madd Hatter measured 52.6 feet and was Paul’s personal charter boat. He was in his mid-twenties when he built it. Known for its seaworthiness and classic, plank-on-frame construction, the boat was an eye catcher. Before long Paul was asked to build boats for other captains and fishing families. Thus began the trajectory of Paul Mann Custom Boats.

Paul grew up in the heart of the North Carolina fishing and boating scene. “All I ever wanted was to be a mate,” he says. “Being a mate at Oregon Inlet was a big deal. It meant you were as good as anyone fishing anywhere in the world.”

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As a teenager, he worked on boats at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center as a deckhand. In the winter, he’d hone his carpentry skills in boat sheds. He got his captain’s license when he was 20 and started running boats. Many times, he was the same age as the mate working in the cockpit, which would confuse clients as they approached the vessel and would inevitably ask where the captain was, expecting to see someone with a little gray hair on top. It was around this time that Paul decided to build his own boat.

“I started with a block plane, a hammer and the will and energy that no one could tell me I couldn’t do something,” he recalls. “I willed myself through all this and I was never so arrogant to think I couldn’t learn. I learned from everybody.”

Madd Hatter

Madd Hatter

And luckily for Paul, he was surrounded by custom boatbuilders willing to help him. Paul’s father was close friends with the pioneering captain and boatbuilder Warren O’Neal, and Paul took great interest in watching the boats take shape. As a young man, Paul also got to know Omie Tillet, who let Paul spend time in the boat shed, mixing glue and nailing planks. Omie was “way beyond his time in his thinking,” Paul says. But one of his closest mentors was Sunny Briggs, who he credits for making him a better builder and a better carpenter.

“The way we learned how to build boats was from the bottom up,” Paul says. “Everybody did all of the aspects from the beginning to the end. We didn’t have one guy for electrical. We had to do it all. That was just part of doing the job.”

The majority of the boats built at Paul Mann Custom Boats were plank-on-frame, and the hull shape was always designed by Paul himself. Though he never held a naval architecture degree, he knew how to create a hull that could fish in nearly any conditions. The boats running in and out of Hatteras and Oregon Inlet routinely fished in some of the harshest conditions on the East Coast, and this influenced the style and shape of the hulls.

Paul and Robin 5

In the 1980s and 1990s, as boats began to grow larger and carry enough fuel to travel on their own bottom to fish tournaments in other regions or head to newfound fisheries in areas like Central America and the Caribbean, more people took notice of the Carolina-built hulls and their signature bow flare. “It wasn’t till the boats started leaving that people came to Dare County [North Carolina] looking for this type of boat,” he says. “Not only do they look good, they will outperform other boats.”

As boats traveled, however, owners required more amenities and systems in their vessels, and delivering on that was another hallmark Paul Mann Custom Boats. The interiors offered exquisite woodwork and yacht-like finishes that rival the best in the world. Paul also began to offer cold-molded boats and learned to work with various composites to build lighter, stronger hulls.

Paul and the Fish

After launching his fortieth hull, however, Paul and his wife and co-worker Robin announced that they had decided to retire. With a growing demand for boats, and prospective clients on the line, the announcement came as a bit of a surprise. Paul said they made their decision after they both had to have neck surgeries. It was time to slow down, get healthy and enjoy their family, especially the grandkids. At 62, Paul says he loves boatbuilding too much to walk away entirely and he plans to build a few smaller boats “to fish on and pass down to my grandchildren.” He plans to spend a lot of time chasing the seatrout and redfish in the North Carolina sounds and finding more time for duck hunting.

He leaves a legacy of custom fishing boats in his wake and many friendships with clients around the globe. “The boats I’ve built over my career have taken me to places I never thought I would go,” he says. Even that first hull he built more than 30 years ago is still fishing today, solidifying what Paul has been saying for years, “only the best can be Mann made!”

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