With John Bayliss, Founder and Owner
T he noise begins early in the morning. Power tools whir into action. Sandpaper grinds against wood grain. Boomboxes echo across the warehouse walls. Everyone is moving, climbing, descending. It’s a mix of micro and macro, frenetic and painstakingly methodical.
At lunch, a pause in the action. Maybe a game of pickup soccer in the boat yard. And in the afternoon it goes on again until the sun begins to set over the docks. It’s breathless, and, like watching a beehive, it’s hard to know where to look and what you are observing.
Bayliss Boatworks is stationed in the small town of Wanchese, North Carolina. It’s decidedly off the radar of most tourist maps, but it’s a vestige of commercial and charter fishing, and its harbor is an important gateway to the open Atlantic through the Oregon Inlet. Here, no day shakes out the same, but every day is filled with a staggering amount of activity. John Bayliss, founder and owner, wouldn’t have it any other way.
For John, this whole thing began with a phone call. His father was in radio, so their family tended to move around a fair amount. As a kid, wherever they ended up, he remembers chasing fish on lakes, rivers or ponds with his brothers. Offshore fishing, which he later experienced for the first time on a family vacation to the Outer Banks, hit him like a lightning bolt. He realized after a few trips that he wanted something beyond a once-a-year connection to it.
“I remember distinctly, I think I was 12, and we were riding home—you know, family station wagon, had a great trip, all that jazz—and I was telling myself, ‘I’ve got to find a way to go do this,’” John says.
When he was finally old enough, he rang up the captain that had taken his family out on a charter to ask for a job. And he got one as a mate.
“We’ll be more critical than our owners before that boat gets christened.
If we see something that we think we can improve on, even if it wasn’t
in the contract, we’ll do so.”
Captain Emory Dillon was a legend on the North Carolina coast, and helped mentor John with the skills and mentality for a successful career on the water. John eventually had his own boat, Tarheel, built, which he’d charter in the summer and fish commercially in the off-season.
There’s a special look in the eyes of a person who has spent a large portion of their life on the water. A glossy, sort of all-knowingness that pervades their gaze. Fishing is a hardy profession that breeds ingenuity, independence and patience. In order to survive, and especially to thrive, among the big swells catching prehistoric fish on the open ocean, you first have to learn respect. It’s a quality that you recognize in John within a few moments of meeting him.
Listening to John’s backstory, it all seems almost predestined. But he never really considered how long he’d be pursuing this saltwater fishing thing when he started. It was an instant passion, but it was pursued without an end goal in mind. Maybe he’d stick around for a few months and start thinking about college. Months turned into years, and years to decades; he was still out there, and loving it. The notions of what works, what doesn’t work, and what’s most important in a sportfishing boat came to John over a period of more than 20 years spent as a professional on the water.
Eventually, an opportunity came to sell his personal boat, and John moved into the world of production boats, working for and consulting with companies like Viking and Hatteras in various positions. When a friend asked if he wanted to start working on custom builds in the winter, he jumped at the opportunity. He could run boats as a captain, he knew how to tinker with them, and he’d seen what the business side looked like. Why couldn’t he build them from the ground up?
It’s the scale that gets you first. Pulling up to the yard, towering boats rise skyward in every direction—60, 70, 80+ footers. They leave a lasting impression even when they’re on dry land. Step on board a finished build in the water, though, and it’s a completely different story. As the inboards start, you begin to get a sense of the sheer power housed in the engine room beneath the main cabin. Rumbling out past the channel markers, the open water stretching out ahead, there’s a charged anticipation.
All of a sudden, the throttles go down, the shackles come off, and the boat flexes its true ability. Salt water shears effortlessly off the signature flare of the hull as the wake streams off the stern far into the distance. Cruising 40 knots, there is simply no strain. It’s like a world class sprinter coasting a 200m race with a spring in their step and a smile on their face.
Weaving through the various warehouses and across the docks at Bayliss, the incredible craftsmanship that each of these boats requires is on full display. The team is divided into specialized sub-groups, everyone pulling together to ensure the utmost quality and a timely delivery. And almost everything that makes up the finished boat is done from scratch on site.
“Since about 2010 we’ve been 100% in-house with mechanical systems, electrical systems, paint, fairing, exterior carpentry, interior carpentry, metalwork,” John says. “If you open up a lid in the cockpit and it’s a refrigerated bait box, we’re doing all of that, including the actual stainless liner. The main driver for that is quality first, but also controlling the timeline.”
It’s important to be strategic when a single build can take more than two years from start to finish, and when your entire team holds themselves to such high standards. Given that many of these boats are regularly being put to the test (and winning tournaments) in some of the most demanding fishing destinations on the planet, there’s a peace of mind in running a tight ship, too.
“You don’t want that call in the middle of the night, ‘Hey, I’ve got an issue,’ because we’re always going to support the boat,” John says. “We’ll be more critical than our owners before that boat gets christened. If we see something that we think we can improve on, even if it wasn’t in the contract, we’ll do so.”
The process itself shakes out more like building a private jet than a custom car. There is no formula here, no step-by-step assembly line, no cutting corners. These are fully-customized, highly-specialized boats meant to handle the rigors of open water with unwavering function and luxurious aesthetics.
Everything begins with a conversation. Prospective owners will describe the intended use of the boat, and any design ideas they might have, and John and his team help advise them on size and specifics. CAD mockups help lay out the finer details, and once everyone is satisfied, it’s on to the hull shop.
With all the modern technology out there, and the inherent strain of salt water, you might expect that a primitive material like wood would be obsolete in cutting-edge sportfishing boats. Not so at Bayliss, where it remains a pivotal element throughout the construction and life cycle of the boat. Wood’s involvement begins with the hull. Through his years on the water, and after speaking to other captains with similar experience, John confirmed what he had always believed: Boats with wood at the core of their hulls simply perform better on the water. They’re quieter, more balanced, and they just feel better.
You can do everything else right on a boat, but if you have a hull that doesn’t ride well, or have the right look, it’s a big mark on the design. While there are plenty of incredible skills involved throughout the boat building process, watching a wooden hull being carefully sculpted like they do at Bayliss may be the most captivating. From the raw sheets of Okoume wood sourced from Africa, to the patient hand-sanding, to the thousands upon thousands of golf tees used to fill in screw holes after the wood is set in place, the comprehensive detail required on such a behemoth scale is staggering.
Syncing so many steps and systems along the way requires an immense amount of working knowledge. John would be the first to admit that the teams he has in place are the ones carrying out the heavy lifting. Even still, he has a fluent grasp on the processes and components. Beginning with a group of just six people, the team has now grown to over 100. It’s a testament to the culture that John has helped foster, and the rigorous discipline and bulletproof craftsmanship they strive for. It also speaks volumes to the dedication they have to their clients, several of whom are on their second or third Bayliss boat by now.
With his laid-back charisma, infectious enthusiasm and invaluable first-hand expertise, John Bayliss has spearheaded an operation that’s as venerated as any in the business. He’s rightfully proud of the world-class boats they are now regularly designing and producing, including their own demo boat called Tarheel that has recently allowed them to put some of their own ideas into action. At the end of the day, though, John recognizes that everything always comes back to fishing.
“Yes, we want it to be a very good-looking boat and very well-executed, but truthfully, a lot of the decisions we make are based on what’s going to help us catch more, what’s going to give us an edge in a tournament, what’s going to make the boat faster, what’s going to make the wake cleaner,” he says. “And we’re constantly trying to refine that and make it better.”
It’s this relentless, competitive attitude that’s at the core of what they do at Bayliss. And it continues to carry their boats from port to port across the seas with the same strength, speed and grace as the legendary fish they’re chasing.
“A lot of the decisions we make are based on what’s going to help us catch more,
what’s going to give us an edge in a tournament, what’s going to make the boat
faster, what’s going to make the wake cleaner.”