The Legacy of Negus Boats

Almost 50 years after Rone Negus opened up shop and began selling his boats to fisherman in the Mobile area, his unique hulls with custom details can still be seen by a keen eye, plying the waters of the Bay and Gulf of Mexico.

Ed Negus sits surrounded by shop pictures showing the eponymous, classic boats in various stages of construction through the decades. “Our boats are all about quality — we never sacrificed the quality of our craftsmanship that went into each of our boats. That’s our reputation,” he says proudly. When talking with the two Negus brothers, Ed and Don, quality is a theme that comes up over and over again when discussing their family’s boat building business. The brothers attribute their business success to their late father, Rone Negus, who first began building wooden boats at the young age of 13 as an apprentice with Altice Boat Works back in 1938. 

Rone was born and raised in Mobile. As a kid, he found used wood pallets, scrounged together some nails and tar and built his first boat by himself. He would take this roughly built boat and row across the Bay towards the Eastern Shore to go crabbing, so he could sell the crabs for 1/2 cent a piece to give back to his momma. According to his sons, this is how he contributed to the family back during the Great Depression. 

After his apprenticeship with Altice Boat Works and serving in the armed services during World War II, Rone found himself building boats in his backyard during his spare time and honing his craft. “There weren’t any fishing boats like this,” Ed explains. “He started putting a V-bottom and raking the bow for a drier ride.” As he built these boats in the early 1950s, he would take them up into the Delta and around Mobile Bay to try them out and test them. It didn’t take long for people to take notice of the unique design and make requests for Rone to build one for them. “It was all word of mouth at the beginning, and it was just a hobby where dad could pick up a little extra money.” 

One innovative design that Rone created was the transom baitwells bolted on the back of the boats. The unique attribute of these wells was that they would work without any pumps as a pick-up tube inserted into it would pick up fresh water while the boat was running, but then as you slowed down to idle, the wave action going up and down would naturally pump water in and out utilizing carefully placed holes just at the waterline. 

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Over the next 20 years, Rone built these custom wooden boats for people all around Mobile. “The boats were being bought by doctors, lawyers, judges and successful businessmen to go sport fishing. Daddy started building them larger so people could go offshore in the Gulf,” says Don. As boat orders began to really pick up, both Ed and Don began to help their father in the backyard. “We were his helpers,” Don remembers. “He called us ‘hey-boys.’ ‘Hey, go do this! Hey, go grab that piece of wood!’” As the business grew, they realized it was time to formalize and streamline their process. Negus Marine was formally incorporated in 1975, and the following year the first fiberglass boat was pushed out of the shop. 

Left to right Rone Negus building a v-hull wooden boat in his backyard, 1946. The first fiberglass boat Negus built, a 1976 17’ boat that Ed owns to this day. This boat is also shown previous page coming out of the mold.

Negus created four molds for the fiberglass hulls — 14’, 17’, 22’ and 26’. The molds were built upon carefully crafted wooden plug boats that were meticulously designed by Rone over many years of tweaking intricate details. Negus would slick the wood, turn the boat upside down and then build the mold around the bottom. Ed proudly states, “These designs were personal to us, as we fished and used these boats before we finalized the mold design. We wanted these boats to be perfect for what our customers were looking for.” Even though they used molds, the boats were still considered custom as each one would be uniquely specific to what the customer wanted to use the boat for: fishing trout in Mobile Bay, deep dropping for red snapper or trawling offshore for billfish. As I continued to listen to the brothers proudly describe their process, I noticed an old Mobile Press-Register newspaper story framed on their wall from 1988 that interviewed Rone, who said, “When I say custom-built, that’s exactly what it was. The customer told us what type of boat, the use and how big they wanted it. I designed the hull and built the boats from start to finish.” 

Negus did not outsource any part of building the boat. The company designed the boats, built the plug boats for the molds and formed the fiberglass hulls from the molds. After the hull was formed and the customer provided feedback as to how they wanted it customized, the family would wire the boats, hook up all the pumps and hoses, install the engine system, and rig all the electronics. “We built and crafted every facet of the boat, from the raw materials and resin to the finished product. We did everything,” Ed says. It was truly a family affair. Negus Marine built around 170 fiberglass boats between 1974 and 2018, when, sadly, they finally closed the business and sold the molds. 

While Negus Marine does not make their custom boats anymore, you can still see these boats cruising across the Bay and trawling offshore. Royer Downing bought a 17’ Negus in 1976, the first year they made fiberglass boats. He bought it directly from Rone. “It came with a 70 Evinrude and rode like a dream,” he says. “While I’ve had to re-power it a few times, I’ve never had to do any fiberglass work or repair on it. It’s a very simple, easy boat. Even with the small size, I would take four guys out into the Gulf and go snapper fishing.” Downing keeps the boat down at Dauphin Island, and while he did end up buying a bigger boat, he still loves to take out his Negus as it handles great in choppy water with the deep V hull design. 

Left to right Wood cabin cruiser Rone Negus built in 1946 to go duck hunting in the Delta, pulling skiffs. A 26’ Negus with a half-tower rigged to fish offshore.

Across the Bay in Fairhope, Buddy Bates is the second owner of a 17’ Negus. His boat was the third fiberglass boat made in 1976. The boat was originally built for Bill Sibley, who was Rone’s brother-in-law. Bates bought the boat in 2010 through Don. “Mr. Sibley hated to sell that boat, but he was in his later 80s and needed to go ahead and sell it,” he says. He considers this boat a treasure. “It’s a great boat, and my daughter, Khaki, and I are planning to pull the shrimp net and fish for speckled trout next week!” 

Bates’ boat is a perfect example of the species, representing what most people think of when they hear the word Negus. With a gleaming white hull, a bluebird interior and a steering wheel off to the side, it was made for salty adventures near and far. I’m sure the Negus brothers and their late father would agree with Bates; the boat is a treasure and being enjoyed just as intended.

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