Captain. Boat-builder. Angler. Paul Spencer, of Spencer Yachts in Wanchese, North Carolina, wears all of these hats. Yet if you ask him, he’ll tell you he hasn’t worked a day in his life. “If you don’t find excitement in fishing, then you’re in the wrong business. And, if you like what you do, it’s not work at all.”
Born and raised on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in Manns Harbor, Spencer’s family lived right on the water. His father fished commercially and he grew up fishing for rock fish and striped bass from a little row boat.
“My older brother got a summer job as mate on one of the charter boats and he got me in too. I was 12 at the time and my first boat was the Lollipop with Capt. Hugh ‘Chick’ Craddock. By the time I was 14, I was on boats that headed offshore 30 to 40 miles to the Gulf Stream. We all worked our way up through the ranks and the top of the line was to mate for Capt. Omie Tillett on his sports fisherman,” he says. “It was such a short season that the charter captains employed a lot of young high school boys. That was nice for us because we got jobs and made some money.”
Interestingly, though it wouldn’t be until 1999 when Spencer became a full-time boat builder, he got his first taste of constructing a craft at the age of 18.
“I married young and my father-in-law was a boat builder,” he says. “We’d work on boats in the winter when it was too cold to fish.”
Spencer’s full-time profession starting in 1975, and one that supported a growing family that soon numbered three girls and two boys, was captaining his own day charter boat out of the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.
“On a typical day’s charter we’d work hard to catch dolphin, tuna and wahoo, the fish the guests wanted, because what we really wanted to do was go out marlin fishing,” he says. “As soon as the box was filled up we’d go put out the skip baits for marlin.”
Spencer charter fished for 22 years.
“It’s a challenge to find fish 150 days a year year-after-year,” he says, “but I love it. It’s the thrill of the hunt. Every day is a new ball game. I never thought about the hours.”
One aspect of the fishing life he envied was the travel. He’d hear stories of all the great global fishing holes from captains aboard the private boats that tournament fished out of North Carolina in the summer. But Spencer was a family man and he fished close to home.
In 1995 Spencer decided to build his own boat. He figured it would be more affordable to do it himself and then he could use the boat for charter and eventually sell it. This he did, and then he built a second boat and sold it with the promise that he could run it for the new owner. By the third boat, and a few hectic years of charter fishing and boat-building at the same time, Spencer became swamped with orders for new builds and decided to build boats full time.
“Once we started building boats of our own we wanted to show the product off,” he says. “So, we entered different tournaments. One of the first was the Ocean City White Marlin Open. Four hundred boats entered and two of my boats took first and second prize. The whole crew shared in the $860,000 in winnings. Not only did the money come at a good time, but it really launched us and gave us instant recognition.”
To the complimentary comment in the sports fishing community that ‘Spencer boats really catch fish’, Spencer modestly replies, “I think it’s because our boats attract some of the best fishermen. Good fishermen are constantly thinking about what they’re doing. They don’t get complacent and neither do we.”
Spencer doesn’t just build boats, he crafts them.
“I’m always looking to do something different or better than the one before,” he says.
This translates into is a vessel that looks as good as it performs. For example, Spencer and his team implemented styling changes with hull number 7 that mingled the typical North Carolina look with Garlington’s out of Florida. The result was a sleek, fast, boat that was flatteringly copied up and down the eastern seaboard.
The economy has slowed the boat building business with only six vessels in the works at Spencer Yachts compared to an all-time high of 13 under construction. Yet Spencer is enjoying some time to angle these days, or as he describes it, being thrown off the bridge by his son, Daniel, who is captaining the company boat these days.
“I enjoy angling,” he says. “There’s a learning curve to it, a different perspective than being on the helm. In some ways it’s harder than I thought.”
Spencer is definitely a good angler. In fact, he was one of the anglers on Sandra MacMillan’s Spencer 63, Sandman, which won Top Boat, at the 2010 USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin or ‘Boy Scout’ Tournament. In fact, Sandman was one of 10 Spencer boats on the dock in St. Thomas last summer.
Today, Spencer travels to fish in destinations he only dreamed of twenty years before. Most of his fishing is with customers and it’s taken him to the Florida sailfish tournaments, the Bahamas, Caribbean and Pacific.
One of his best fish stories took place literally on the other side of the world off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. That’s where out on charter his son Daniel caught an 1120 pound black marlin. Ironically, that same year his older son, Cliff, caught a 1228 pound blue marlin in a local tournament off the North Carolina coast. Not many men can brag that both sons have caught grander marlin in the same year!
“There have certainly been days that burn a mental picture in my mind,” Spencer says. “I remember the high of being hooked up to an 800 to 900 pound marlin off Ocean City and the low when it got away. You’ve just got to shake it off and keep fishing.”