The City Magazine Since 1975

Heirloom Ride

October 2018
Heirloom Ride
WRITER: 

Handmade in Costa Rica, these versatile boats are built to last

Bill Harwell captains one of his Costa Carolina Custom Pangas near his Sullivan’s Island home.

How could Bill Harwell have known that a Costa Rican surf trip in 1991 would alter his life for good? Yet here he is on Sullivan’s Island, giving a journalist a ride in his Costa Rican-made fishing boat before he returns to the Central American country where he and his family live part-time, operating La Carolina Lodge in the northern mountains.

On that inaugural trip, Harwell met boat maker Don Guillermo. The native James Islander would go on to buy several of Guillermo’s pangas—fishing boats “known for their versatility,” he says. After Guillermo’s death, Harwell went to work designing his own boat, launching Costa Carolina Custom Pangas in 2000.

Now retired after decades as a longshoreman, Harwell is ramping up efforts on the passion project. He and a small team make 20- and 23-foot-long pangas in Costa Rica, hand-laying fiberglass hulls, decks, and stringers and adding full-length seasoned Spanish cedar gunwales. ”We build these boats to hold up for generations,” says Harwell, whose website, costacarolinapangas.com, has all the craftsmanship details.

For finish work and sale (prices can rise to $90,000), Harwell ships the boats to his Mount Pleasant shop. Here in the Lowcounty, ”They can navigate shallow creeks, yet the high bow and rather narrow beam make for a smooth and stable ride through rough waters, like in the harbor,” he says. 

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Photograph by Lilia Montero