Jacksonville Times: Vela Boatworks Feature

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Jacksonville startup builds sportfishing boat it hopes is the 'Gamechanger'

Written by Matt Soergel - Florida Times Union

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It was crafted out on Beaver Street in Jacksonville’s industrial Rail Yard District, west of the farmers market: a sleek 36-foot-8-inch power catamaran, built from scratch and aimed squarely at the luxury sportfishing market.

Blake Kingsbury and Tommy Jones named it the Gamechanger.

It’s the first step in their plan to turn their startup business, Vela Boatworks, into a competitor in the boating business — an industry that, like so many outdoor-oriented pursuits, has thrived in the age of COVID-19.

They now have five full-time employees and plan to soon start showing the Gamechanger to prospective clients, as an example of the kind of work they can do.

Kingsbury and Jones are both 40, both Atlantic Beach residents, and were friends at Episcopal High School. They drifted apart for a while but reconnected at a wedding about two years ago.

In conversation, Kingsbury found out that Jones was a boat builder. He’d been at Huckins Yachts, a fixture in Jacksonville’s marine business, for several years moving up the ranks there. He then went on to manage St. Johns Boat Co.

Kingsbury made him a proposal: Come build boats with me.

Kingsbury had been a dentist and an entrepreneur in the dental business. “A serial entrepreneur,” he said. “It’s a bit of an affliction.” And he had come to a realization.

“You know what? Dentistry is kind of boring," he said. "I'd like to do something else, actually make things.”

Construction took a year and a half

In conversations about the boating industry with Ben Floyd, a veteran charter boat captain in Charleston, S.C., he learned that an established sport-fishing catamaran company had a four-year waiting list for orders.

That seemed a business opportunity. So with Floyd as a partner, they came up with an idea for a catamaran, sleeker in looks than others, to compete in that market.

Jones came aboard, and Vela was on its way.

Vela Boatworks Headquarters

The design phase, during which they worked with a licensed naval architect, began two years ago. Construction on the Gamechanger, which was slowed by COVID-19, took a year and a half.

It’s a luxury craft with two 400-horsepower engines. It comes with a solar array, for fully renewable energy, on top of the larger-than-usual hardtop cover over the center console.

They don’t yet have a price set for any future orders but did say that fully-equipped versions by competitors go for about $1 million. They’d be below that, they said.

They’ve tested it already on the water. “The boat has performed way better than we could have hoped for,” Jones said. “It rides on a track. When you’re turning, it almost feels like your on one of those rides at Disney World.” 

If they get orders for more boats, there is plenty of room at the Beaver Street location to expand. They also repair and restore boats; several are now there for such services.

Vela Detailing

Starting a business such as Vela comes with challenges, Kingsbury acknowledges.

“Like any startup, the rule of thumb is, whatever you think it’s going to cost, double that. And double the amount of time,” he said. “It is a really expensive endeavor to start. I was fortunate enough — I got out of dentistry at the right time, I’m not married, I don't have any kids. If I want to, I can bet the farm.”

It has its rewards as well as risks.

“We get to build a boat, and worst comes to worst, we sell that boat, we mitigate the losses, and we have a product that’s beautiful,” Kingsbury said.

For Jones, meanwhile, it was a chance he couldn’t pass up.

“I’ve got a wife and three kids, so there’s some weight behind any sort of job move,” he said. “But the opportunity was something I love doing, with people I really enjoy working with. So, after thinking about it a while: Life's short, so you’ve got to do it.”