Wear & Tear, Bumps & Scrapes: Stuff Happens
Admiral Marine is the go-to place when something bad happens to your boat. But it’s more than that. It’s a three-generation family-owned business with a fascinating history and some interesting twists and turns.
Founded as E.B. Digh & Son, the company had its humble beginnings in a run-down building and shed on Wilkinson Boulevard in Charlotte. It was there that E.B. and his son Waco built a business primarily by repairing wooden station wagons. Younger readers might not be aware that in the 1940s and 50s, station wagons with doors (and even quarter panels and tail gates) made of wood were very popular. They were referred to as “woodies.”
Needless to say, a car made with a lot of wood could turn into a real mess if involved in an accident. And repairing it required advanced woodworking skills. A lot more than pounding it out and applying a new coat of paint. E.B. and Waco were master craftsmen and could restore damaged woodies to like new condition. The business prospered.
As the popularity of woodies waned, the Dighs moved into the business of repairing wooden boats. They figured if they could repair a wooden car, they could also repair a wooden boat. And they could. They started repairing boats in 1953. As word of their expert boat repair spread, the company grew.
Wooden boat craftsman Waco Digh.
As time went on, the same thing happened to boats as happened to woodies: wood gave way to more modern materials. In the case of boats, fiberglass. This didn’t stop the Dighs. They went on to become experts in fiberglass repair. Even fiberglass manufacturing. And today, third-generation Mike Digh, who started working in the family business at the age of 12 (as an actual paid employee), is widely considered one of the best boat repair craftsmen in the Carolinas.
In the year 2000, the city of Charlotte bought their Wilkinson Boulevard property and the Dighs moved their business to its current location in the Triangle Business Park on the southwest corner of Lake Norman in Denver.
Much has changed over the years. Years ago, about 70% of the damage to boats occurred during transport. Today about 80% happens on the water. On a given Saturday during the summer, it can seem like there are 10,000 boats on Lake Norman. But as big as the lake is, people still have a way of running into each other. In addition to accidents, boats can also be damaged at docks or from storms. Boats damaged by Hurricane Hugo alone resulted in four years of work for Admiral Marine.
I asked Mike where a lot of his business comes from. Jet skis. Hey, there’s a surprise, huh? He says it’s not the jet skis themselves that are unsafe; it’s the operators who try one daredevil stunt too many.
The Dighs, all three generations, have been master craftsmen in wood, metal and fiberglass. Mike likes to say, “If you wreck it, we can fix it.” Mike, like his father and grandfather, is a perfectionist. When you get your boat back, you can be confident the work was done right. He’s even become expert in the difficult art of color matching. Just as in ink, photography and paint, matching the gels used in fiberglass can be a daunting task. When Mike’s finished with your boat, it will look new, not patched.
By JPaul "Crash" Henderson
Back in the 1980s, Glastron Carlson, one of the pioneers of fiberglass boat-building, moved their manufacturing plant to Fair Bluff NC. Mike briefly left the family business to go to work for them to learn more about fiberglass manufacturing. As Mike’s reputation as a fiberglass master craftsman spread, so did demand for his services. In addition to his work with boats, he’s been commissioned to do major fiberglass projects for Carowinds, NASCAR, and Discovery Place in Charlotte. He’s even built practice sleds for the Olympic bobsled team. And those big bells you see at the Auto Bell Car Wash? Those were made by Admiral Marine from drawings supplied by Auto Bell.
For the past thirty years or so, Mike has also been manufacturing dock boxes. In 1996 alone, he built more than 400 dock boxes for the Peninsula Yacht Club. Today he offers his dock boxes in a variety of sizes and configurations.
Admiral Marine, and its three generations of master craftsmen, is unique. With a twist here and turn there over the years, the company has morphed into whatever the market needed at the time. And always did it well.
Sadly, Waco Digh, the second generation in the business, passed away in August of this year. Waco was loved by all and was largely responsible for the company’s versatility and growth. He also instilled his passion for good work and his strong work ethic in his son, Mike, who now operates the business on his own.
So where does Admiral Marine go from here? Mike has no son to follow in his footsteps, so Admiral Marine will continue to be the area’s premier boat repair business until Mike gets tired of working – which he assured me won’t be any time soon.