"When we pass by people on the river they're like, 'Wow, I've never even seen anything like that," says Will Evert, co-founder of French Broad Boatworks.
He's talking about a new line of high-end, wooden drift boats that he and his business partner, Jason Brownlee, have started handcrafting at their Asheville shop. Combining a wide variety of design influences and materials, the duo's dory boats are unlike anything else being produced in the Southeast. Equipped with innovative, silent electronic motors, they're ideal for fly-fishing, birding and peaceful cruises.
"You've got the soul of a wooden board, but you've got the skin of really modern materials," says Evert.
Based along Amboy Road and adjacent to Carrier Park, Boatworks is one of the latest creative businesses trying to capitalize on renewed interest in the French Broad River as a recreation hub. But unlike other outfitters offering tubing tours, a ride on one of these drift boats won't get you wet.
While dories have long been popular for fishing, Evert says he wants to "branch out a little bit to reach bird-watchers, ecotourists, people who just want to experience the river in a safe way and have an enjoyable time. A drift boat's a great option for that."
"Ecologically it's very nice," he adds. "There's no gas on the river. There's no noise. It doesn't disturb animals."
Longtime friends and partners in the home construction business, Evert and Brownlee started experimenting with building boats four years ago.
"We read a lot of old books and studied a lot of old plans," says Evert, noting that a lot of those early attempts were unsuccessful. "If you're going to do something creative, you have to be able to rip it up and put it in the waste-bucket."
Undeterred, they were inspired by their love of fishing and passion for craftsmanship.
"We love being on the water, we love fishing," says Brownlee. "And we just decided we wanted to try something more sculptural, more artful versus the building of a box-house. This is our artwork."
Compared to building boats, "houses are not really that complicated," says Brownlee.
In Asheville, "you can throw a stone downtown and hit a contractor," Evert jokes, noting that boat-builders are few and far between. "In the carpentry world, [building boats is] like putting four stars on your lapel."
However, the two haven't transitioned away from their contracting business to work on boats full-time yet. And it doesn't sound as if they're in any rush. For the time being, "we're going to use the construction business to fuel the fire of the boat business," says Brownlee.
"We want to do this right. We don't want to get in a position where we're selling out, building a bunch of cheap, plastic drift boats," adds Evert. "We'd much rather sit back and work on it, and do it really quality and do it the right way."
Not only do they want Boatworks to be known as "the high-end, custom riverboat boat-shop in Asheville." With dories popular in trout-fishing meccas like the Rockies and New Zealand, they see potential for international reach.
In fact, they're currently working on filling an order to build a custom, mahogany drift boat for use at a Montana ranch along the Missouri River.
Still, Brownlee knows that their product isn't for everyone. "Only a small fraction of boat-buyers are going to be interested, because they're not mainstream," he notes. "Our market is for the connoisseur."
In addition to their main dory, the team is working on creating smaller drifters, skiffs and paddleboards, with prices ranging from $1,500 to upward of $14,000.
Despite the niche market and the hefty price tags, Brownlee sees great opportunity.
"We're creating functional, beautiful sculptures that people will pay for," he says. "We're just artists, and we really like to create with wood. And we really feel like people will be drawn to that."
For more information on French Broad Boatworks products and services, see frenchbroadboatworks.com
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