Just about four blocks north of Raymond James Stadium, Sheaffer Marine has quietly been building some of the boating industry’s most respected hybrid sportfishing boats for the past 21 years. Ben Sheaffer and his team were among the first builders to design a boat series that was just as effective in-shore as it was off-shore, which is now a standard option among large sportfishing boat manufacturers.
“Making their own mousetrap,” as Sheaffer phrased it, came naturally after the company had spent the previous three decades repairing other company’s watercraft as “The Boat Doctor,” which first opened in 1967. Sheaffer began working for “The Boat Doctor” when he was a high-schooler in the late 1970s; he acquired the company in 1988 and later renamed it Sheaffer Marine. When it came time to design his own line of boats, Sheaffer took what he learned from years of repairing other manufacturers’ work to create a vessel that will last a lifetime.
“We wanted to make a boat that, when you get rid of it, [you’re doing so because] you want a bigger boat or a smaller boat, or you don’t want a boat anymore. You’re not getting rid of it because it’s falling apart,” Sheaffer says. “We wanted to incorporate newer technologies, different materials and newer design but with an old craftsmanship touch and some traditional, classical [aspects], rather than making it look like some space-age thing.”
Though they still do repair work for big-name builders like Grady White and U.S. Marine, Sheaffer estimates that manufacturing of his company’s S240 and S280 makes up 80% of their business. The company has been building essentially the same boat for two decades. It’s a unique model: A versatile family and fishing boat with features and accommodations for use both in-shore and off-shore.
All the boats that have ever born the Sheaffer name are still floating, in areas ranging from the Texas Gulf Coast to the Chesapeake Bay (including hull No. 2, docked at the Tampa Yacht Club). By focusing on a few main points — like solid design, quality materials, relevant features and functions, simple maintenance and repairs, and top-notch service — Sheaffer says they’ve been able to create a loyal, repeat customer base.
“I don’t try to get a customer. I try to keep a customer,” Sheaffer says. “I’d rather you come back 10 times than get 10 new customers.”
When working on repairs, he sometimes has to push back against other manufacturers who would rather appease their customer with a cheap, quick fix to a broken part than a more expensive, but more permanent, solution.
“Different philosophies, but which one is better for the customer — the cheap one, or the one that never breaks again?” Sheaffer says. “It [might] be more expensive for us to fix it today as the boat manufacturer, but that boat owner never has a problem again, and you made a happy customer out of them. That’s our philosophy. It’s not the cheapest way of doing [repairs], but it’s a sure, stronger, better-for-the-customer way of doing it.”
Beyond just good, old-fashioned, quality work, Sheaffer can point to a couple of keys to the company’s success. For one, their unique location (in the center of Tampa, not on the water) makes it easy for customers and vendors driving or flying in.
“We’ve got the airport. We’ve got the freight company over here. You don’t think of it until you need it or you don’t have it,” Sheaffer says. “We get things pretty timely because of our location.”
But most important, Sheaffer says, is his team. One of his team members began working at The Boat Doctor before Sheaffer himself, and many go back a decade or more. “To be honest with you, if they all got up and said, ‘Ben, go pound sand, we’re out of here,’ it would take me another lifetime to do this,” he says, gesturing to the work around him.
It’s their passion for their craft that makes a Sheaffer Boat, he adds.
“We constantly look for people with passion about the boat,” Sheaffer says. “It’s hard to find, but when we get it, when we have it, it’s awesome.”