Made in the U.S.A.

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A nice “made in America” story surfaced last week in North Carolina.

Gunboat, a builder of high-performance carbon fiber cruising catamarans, announced it was investing about $1.8 million over three years in a boatbuilding operation in the old Buddy Davis yard in Wanchese, N.C. The sailboat builder will produce its 55 Series catamarans in the Dare County facility, as well as a line of RIBs through its sister company Pure Yachting, according to Gunboat sales director Bob Marston, speaking from the company’s offices in Bristol, R.I.

Over three years, the builder expects to hire about 71 workers in North Carolina. Post-recession, there certainly is no shortage of skilled workers with experience in building state-of-the-art sportfishing boats right in the neighborhood — and looking for work.

The Gunboat story is an interesting look at a small high-end boatbuilder doing all it can to remain competitive in a global marketplace.

Gunboat closed its production yard in South Africa in July because of rising costs and other concerns. Two years ago it moved the production of its big 60 Series sailing cats to a modern, efficient plant in China, where the boats are built from composite construction using vacuum-bagged, infused, post-cured epoxies with carbon skins, Marston says.

Why choose the United States for this new operation?

Marston says several factors helped to sell Gunboat founder and CEO Peter Johnstone on the United States, Wanchese in particular: a skilled labor force, a business-friendly state, an attractive real estate market and competitive wages (average salary $27,093, plus benefits, according to North Carolina).

“After more than a decade of producing overseas in lower-labor-cost markets, we are bringing manufacturing home to the United States,” Johnstone says in a statement. “Productivity and quality control are essential to our success. We spent months evaluating locations in various states along the Eastern Seaboard. North Carolina stood clear above the rest.”

Gunboat looked at building in Rhode Island or Massachusetts but couldn’t get the cost of manufacturing down to where the company could be competitive in a global market, Marston says.

“North Carolina was literally falling over itself to get us down there,” he says. “[In New England] we just couldn’t find property appropriate for industrial production … not for the size boats we are building.”

The state is holding a job fair for the boatbuilder and is building it a 40-foot-wide launch ramp to accommodate the beam of a catamaran. (A 78-footer has a 33-foot beam.) Significantly, the state is providing assistance in the form of a $213,000 grant from the One North Carolina Fund.

The Gunboat plant in Wanchese is about 30,000 square feet. Marston says the builder has contracts for a trio of 55s at an average price tag of $1.58 million. The company is moving plugs for the cat to North Carolina, from which female molds will be made. Marston says the company hopes to be building the first catamaran in North Carolina in June and complete it in December, in time for the Miami International Boat Show in February 2013.

“We’re pinching ourselves,” Marston says, noting that the excitement and interest in the company’s move to this country touched a patriotic chord in people. “It was a nice surprise,” he says.

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