Reborn Southport hits the road

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Southport is back with a bigger boat, but is staying true to the core values of quality and performance.

Southport is back with a bigger boat, but is staying true to the core values of quality and performance.

It’s not often that boatbuilding companies get a second chance, especially those that sank during the Great Recession. Less than four years after Southport Boats ceased operations when parent company American Global Yacht Group exited the boat sales and brokerage business, the “new Southport” was taking its first new model in years — the flagship 33 FE — on a tour of its growing dealer network (11 and counting, with an eye toward the Great Lakes).

The tour was a prelude to a major presence by the high-end center console builder at the fall boat shows, says managing director and industry veteran Skip Robinson. “Our idea for the tour was to roll out our new model, the 33, and tell consumers and the industry that we’re back,” Robinson told Soundings Trade Only at a July 25 stop at Prestige Yacht Sales in Mystic, Conn. “We felt there were … people who wanted to purchase the new and improved larger Southport but wanted to ride one since it’s a new company building them after the original Southport went dark for a while. Our strength is in the ride, and we want them to feel that.”

The tour also included stops in Sag Harbor, N.Y.; Kittery, Maine; and Osterville, Mass. Robinson says Southport conducted 44 sea trials with qualified buyers invited by their local dealers and had “five contracts ready to sign” on the new 33. Hull No. 1, the demonstrator boat, has been sold. Robinson says he expects “10 to 12 sales by Christmas.” Hull Nos. 2 and 3 are in production and, to satisfy the hardcore saltwater fishing crew, No. 4 will be a tournament edition.

A sea trial showed that the 33-footer, with twin 300-hp Yamaha 4-strokes, jumps out of the hole while keeping its bow down and delivers excellent sightlines. The ride was smooth in a confused chop. “The dry weight is only 7,300 pounds, but it feels like it weighs way more than it does — like one of the battlewagons you see way offshore,” Robinson says.

Industry veteran Skip Robinson says he's having fun at the helm of the reborn Southport Boats.

Industry veteran Skip Robinson says he's having fun at the helm of the reborn Southport Boats.

The boat tops out at 51 to 52 mph with the 300s and cruises at 36 mph at 4,000 rpm, he says. “At 30 mph, the 33 delivers a very comfortable ride” and the fuel-burn is modest, he says.

The base price, with engines and a T-top, is $264,000. Fully rigged with a bow thruster, a side door and electronics, it will cost $298,000.

Expect to see the 33 FE at the boat shows in Newport, R.I.; Norwalk, Conn.; and Annapolis, Md.; and the entire three-boat Southport line at the Oct. 30-Nov. 3 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and possibly the Florida shows in St. Petersburg and Miami during the winter.

Since the spring of 2011, when Kenway Corp. acquired tooling and equipment from Southport Boats, the reborn company has slowly ramped up the manufacturing of its tried-and-true 27- and 29-footers — from three in 2011 to eight in 2012, 14 in 2013 and 30 new boats built in 2014. “We’re planning on building 42 boats in 2015,” Robinson says.

Although plans are still in development, Southport expects to introduce a new flagship in the 37- to 40-foot range “within the next 24 to 30 months,” he says. A “price-point” more modestly powered 27-foot dual console is also in the works. “We don’t want to be the biggest. We don’t want to sacrifice the individual attention each boat gets from a more modest build schedule. [We will be] perhaps an 80- to 100-boat builder within the next three to five years,” Robinson says. “We think our timing is right, that we have the right boat for the right time.”

Iconic origins

Robinson joined the industry in the late 1960s when he bought a small marina and service yard on Cape Cod, Mass., that is now known as Onset Bay Marina. Leadership stints at Palmer Johnson and Hodgdon Yachts followed. He joined Southport Boats in 2012 and is quick to praise the men behind the boats and the company, which was founded in 2003.

“Southports are great rough-water boats developed by iconic industry people,” he says, reeling off the names of Alton Herndon, former president of Hatteras Yachts; Frank Longino, a former vice president of marketing at Grady-White Boats and Chris-Craft; and Val Jenkins, director of engineering for the company and former vice president of operations at Chris-Craft.

Founding partners Herndon and Longino contracted with C. Raymond Hunt Associates for the Southport’s continuously variable deep-vee hull, which begins at 22 degrees at the transom.

Southport has its sights set on the hybrid fishing/cruising market.

Southport has its sights set on the hybrid fishing/cruising market.

From the ashes

Southport sold 425 boats before crashing in 2010. In the spring of 2011, Kenway acquired the tooling and equipment and moved manufacturing from North Carolina to Kenway’s facility in Augusta, Maine. Founded in 1947 as a wooden-boat builder, Kenway has through the decades diversified into industrial composite manufacturing and field service in multiple industries while retaining its engineering and design roots.

In the marine industry, Kenway owns Maritime Marine, is a partner in the Front Street Shipyard and has partnered with Brooklin Boatyard and Rockport Marine. Robinson says the diversified, tech-savvy ownership has the financial wherewithal to fuel Southport’s plan for measured, strategic growth.

Southport engineers have worked to make improvements from top to bottom on the “new” Southports, starting with a manufacturing transition from traditional open-molding to advanced vacuum-infusion. Vinylester resins are used on major structural components, specifically formulated for high strength and blister resistance, Robinson says. A vinylester barrier coat further guards against water permeation and blistering, and improves cosmetic properties.

“Except in the hull, which is solid fiberglass, we have transitioned to a higher-density core material — more than 180 percent improved — as we re-engineered the overall laminate,” Robinson says. “Our goal is to be 100 percent free of structural warranty claims.”

Other upgrades can be found in the wiring, plumbing, hardware, through-hull fittings and T-top.

“Most important, Maine is known for its boatbuilders, its craftsmanship and its composites expertise,” Robinson says. “Employees building the Southports have an average tenure of more than 10 years, with many in the 15- to 30-year range. They are experts with a long history of yacht and shipbuilding.”

Southport recently hired George Menezes, a longtime engineer at Sabre and Back Cove, to serve as director of product development and engineering.

Robinson says the new Southport will keep its focus on its dealers and customers to stay true to the builder’s reputation. “We don’t do focus groups. I talk to people at boat shows,” he says. “I’m not so arrogant to think if we build it, they will come. We want to build it for them.”

The long-term goal is not to become the industry’s most profitable builder, Robinson says. “Our goal is to build the best boat we can, and we think consumers will respond to that. I have always believed that.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue.