North Carolina boat builder dies

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Omie “Sportsman” Tillett, a boatbuilder, charter fisherman and lay minister, passed away at the age of 90. Tillett was a legend in the Outer Banks, having started as a charter captain in 1945 when he was just 16. He was considered a pioneer of the Outer Banks’ offshore charter fishing industry. His boat Sportsman was well known in its home port of Oregon Inlet.

“Omie was a real character who had a big impact on the sportfishing and boatbuilding communities in this area,” says Heather Maxwell, tournament director of Pirate’s Cove Billfish Tournament. “Omie, Buddy Davis and Warren O’Neal were known for their distinctive offshore boats which had Carolina flair. Omie also was one of the first in this area to use the West epoxy system in the mahogany boats he built.”

Tillett built boats for about a decade under his Sportsman Boatworks brand. He was also in demand as a sportfishing captain from his early years. “We were fishing people—my dad and brother fished—and the first folks I took out when I was 16 knew me, so it wasn’t like they were strangers,” Tillett told Maxwell a few years ago. “A year after that, my dad bought a boat that I ran. Back then, you could get away with things—there were no licenses or things of that nature.”

Tillett built his first boat in 1972, a 45-footer sportfishing boat of cold-planked mahogany. That was followed by two 50-foot sportfishing boats, then several more, including one for his brother, and finally a 60-ft. boat called Mary One.

Tillett recalled the early days of his boatbuilding career. “I would walk around boat yards and I would measure how these styles of boats would set in the water,” he told Maxwell. “I had a way of measuring it and it worked out. I did the math.”

But launching the first boat was unsettling. “Lord have mercy. Just setting up a boat was frightening; I just didn’t know how she would set in the water,” Tillett told Maxwell. “Was she going to set bow-down like a duck feeding or set just right? Oh me. But the Lord helped me with all of it. You know I put a water line on her in the shop and when she went in the water she was just right.”

All his boats were well-built, but the career was shorter than he planned. “I got allergic to the epoxy and it was time to stop,” said Tillett. “Shortness of breath at night and the glue would make me itch and it was time to stop. That was in 1980 and I continued to fish until 1991 when I retired altogether.”

A deeply devout man, Tillett started the tradition of the blessing of the charter fleet in the Outer Banks. “He began every morning by blessing the fleet which started a tradition that continues today,” reads his obituary. “Omie was ‘topped off’ with love for the Lord. His signature ‘woooo’ and holy-ghost hugs were as well-known as his skills as a captain and boatbuilder.”

In January 2009, Tillett was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian honor in North Carolina, for his accomplishments and exemplary service as a citizen in his community. A year later, he was named the 2010 Dare County Living Legend. He is also a member of the International Game Fish Association’s Hall of Fame. 

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