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Building a legacy: Three generations carry on boat-building tradition

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Bobby Dixon stands with his most recent build, a barrel-back runabout that is modeled after a 1930s and ‘40s Chris-Craft. “They’re a classic,” Dixon said. “There’s a company now that has started reproducing this kind of boat. It’s just a head-turner. When you take that one down, the people stop and look. All the production boats they just go by, but when you bring something like this they stop and look.”

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By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Bobby Dixon considers it a compliment when he takes one of his boats to the coast or to the Pamlico River and someone asks, “What year is it?”

A misguided compliment, but still flattering.

A better question would be “What years?” That’s because, for Dixon, boats are not purchases. They are do-it-yourself projects that can be years in the making.

The first, “Go Fish,” a 33-foot center console fishing boat, was a three-year endeavor that was followed by 21-foot version. Though slightly smaller, his latest, a hand-crafted barrel-back runabout that he launched last month, is the granddaddy of them all. Named “Papa Joe” (Dixon’s middle name) and modeled after a 1930s and ’40s Chris-Craft, this mahogany head-turner took a year and a half to complete.

“I always wanted one like this,” Dixon said. “I think it turned out better than I had pictured it.”

Dixon, who will be 80 next month, first got his feet wet in boat building when he was in high school, using plans he got from Popular Mechanics.

“I like the water and I didn’t have the funds to buy (a boat),” he said. “So it was just a matter of economics to build it and learn as you go.”

He built a few small boats in high school and college, selling one of them to buy an engagement ring for Della (Stokes) Dixon, his wife of nearly 60 years. But Dixon put away his pastime when he began his professional career and didn’t take it up again until he retired.

Over the last 12 years, he has built three boats, involving three generations of his family. His son, Brad, and grandsons, Collin and Tanner Dixon and Dylan Justice, have all had a hand in constructing them.

“My dad was a general contractor for years,” Brad Dixon said. “He had built anything from houses to multistory condos and town homes. He is just a talented human being. He kind of put it in all of us, and we’ve all followed his footsteps in learning.”

Brad recalls that after his father’s retirement, the elder Dixon was considering buying a boat when he opted to build one instead.

“Honestly, he really didn’t tell me what he was thinking or what he was planning,” Brad said, laughing.”I walked into their shop one day and he had laid it out. I thought he was going to build something small. I walked in and it was laid out at 30-some feet.”

For such a large project, it was all hands on deck. Dixon worked on the boat every day, while Brad pitched in a few nights a week and on Saturdays. Dixon’s grandchildren weren’t exactly skilled craftsmen at the time, but there are family photos of them wearing hard hats and sanding wood when they were still in grade school.

By the time Tanner was a teenager, Dixon was ready to start a second boat, which the family agreed would be ideal for Tanner’s senior project in high school. Tanner’s school dropped the requirement, but the work continued.

“He was very diligent,” Dixon said. “He came every afternoon after school and we worked until 6 or 7 o’clock. I usually didn’t work on it unless he was here.”

In January 2017, it was Dylan’s turn. After building two wood and fiberglass fishing boats, Dixon was ready to tackle a new project, an all-wood boat.

Even for an experienced woodworker, building a boat from mahogany is a challenge. While fiberglass is somewhat forgiving, allowing builders to fill and patch over mistakes, wood requires perfection.

“This one’s been a challenge; that’s part of the drive behind it,” Brad said. “It’s just a lot different from what we’ve built in the past, a lot more labor intensive. The surface that you see is the surface you’re going to get. You can’t hide it. You can’t fill it.

“The exterior finish is basically 12 coats of clear coat on top of mahogany planks, so it’s like a piece of furniture,” he said. “It’s an art really when you take each plank that’s 6 inches wide and you fit each edge so they line up and join perfectly. That’s where a lot of time goes into this.”

Summer and winter, Dixon spent hours a day in his shop, with Brad joining him after work and on weekends. Dylan would stop by between classes at Pitt Community College.

“I had a break during the middle of the day during my classes, so I would come here,” Dylan said. “So in that two-hour time, I told people I had ‘Classic Boat Building’ as my 10-o’clock class.”

He was only half-joking. There were plenty of lessons to be learned, from painting to finishing, even rigging the engine.

“I guess it kind of makes you an independent person,” Dylan said, “being able to solve problems and knowing how to fix things.”

Although the experience has been an educational one, for the Dixons, building boats has been more about building memories. This close family has been drawn closer by time spent together pursuing a common goal.

“That was part of it, to see if we could get them together and spend some time with them,” Dixon said. “I just think it’s time spent together that they all enjoy. When they enjoy it enough that they can put the phones down and the computer and the video games and say, ‘Hey, let’s do that,’ that’s the key.”

Building boats has turned out to be a long-term gift. The family that put the boats together also puts those boats in the water together.

“It’s a passion,” Brad said. “Some people like playing golf; we just all like doing this. … It’s a great feeling when we’re going off shore and fishing and having a great day and the people that helped you build the boat are here with you.”

That is one reason it doesn’t matter what year model the boat is. It is not for sale.

“You can’t sell it,” Dixon said. “It will be passed down.”

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