Roy R. Barnes, President of Lightning Yachts, began his boatbuilding career in 1964 with the construction of the “Sweet Thang”, a 38’ sport fisherman. He owned and operated this boat over the next ten year period, during which he rebuilt, and assisted with the construction of several other similar craft, which set the standard for charter vessels in the Swansboro, NC area.
William E. (Bill) Schwabe began his career in the electronics industry. A fourth generation electrical engineer, he worked for several of the “giants” (IBM, Northern Telecom Nortell, Exide and Comptronics). Coming from a family that was always involved in boating, he cut his teeth as a child helping his father rebuild older classic yachts. He moved to the coast of North Carolina in 1985 and began working in the charter boat industry, keeping busy in the winter months at bigger boatyards such as East Bay, and Jarrett Bay Boatworks, he became familiar with all phases of marine construction assisting in the building of several custom sport fishing yachts.
The two met as competitors initially, tied up in adjoining slips at the same marina, and began talking about the newest breed of boats coming out of the bigger shops. The charter industry was moving to bigger, faster, better appointed boats working farther offshore in the gulf stream, catching the tuna, dolphin and marlins discovered there. They began plotting the construction of their first yacht, a 61’ high-tech boat that stunned the industry with its introduction.
Realizing performance was becoming of paramount importance in the future markets, they set about to determine what materials and processes the aerospace industry was using would be applicable to the yacht construction trade. By reading all they could on the subject, and attending numerous trade shows, they began experimenting with these “newfangled” materials. Those that made sense found their way into their project, and they had the advantage of using it themselves for three years to find out how well things held up.
Built on Harkers Island, this first collaboration, the “WHITE LIGHTNING”, was a “super charterboat,” far and away the largest, fastest and nicest appointed charter yacht on the coast. Keeping the same lines that made the Carolina boats famous, the flared bow, graceful sheer and sexy curved tumblehome, the traditional outward appearance disguised the high-tech construction that lied beneath the smooth skin. They are also quick to give credit to Ricky Gillikin, of East Bay Boatworks for his input, advice, and design skills, in addition to his leasing of space and a used jig on which to start.
The market quickly took notice. Carolina boats have always been in demand, and one that ran as fast, or faster, than the rest, but burned only half the fuel caught the attention of the sport fishing community. Initial doubts many other builders had about the construction methods and materials gradually fell away as the boat continued to perform, and showed no signs of aging or failure after years of hard use (the boat is now eighteen years old, running canyon offshore trips based in Ocean City, Maryland). Today, almost all of the custom Carolina boats being built utilize these “exotic” materials in one form or another.
Using the money generated by the sale of the boat, they then built their own facility in the Jarrett Bay Marine Industrial Park and the pair are still constantly experimenting with newer products as they are developed, to keep themselves at the leading edge of the technology. While the business is going strong, and all indications are for continued success, they also remember the luxury tax and what it did to many builders in the early 90’s. Larger firms were severely hurt by the sudden decline in orders and many even went under. They prefer to keep it small, and more manageable, and most days still can be found out in the shop, working alongside their employees keeping the “tradition” of Carolina boatbuilding going strong.