BY KERRY FIRTH
Mark Castlow is a man who, by his own admission, has never had a job. He’s the quintessential entrepreneur who started making and selling surf boards at age 16 and has lived his dream building and selling boats and boards for his entire life. Now, at age 70, he owns and operates Dragonfly Boatworks in Vero Beach, which specializes in building near-shore fishing boats for people who appreciate quality.
“Our clients want something totally unique, designed for their individual needs,” Castlow said. “It’s like getting a tailor-made custom suit versus buying one off the rack. No two boats are the same and each one being built already has a name on it. We combine purposeful design with exceptional components and place them in the hands of master craftsmen.”
Castlow founded Dragonfly Boatworks in 2007, but he’s spent his lifetime in, around and on the water. The native Floridian grew up in South Miami and had sand in his toes with his first step. As a teen, Castlow learned how to ride the waves, surfing up and down the Florida coast. He loved the sport so much that he started his own surf shop, creating a line of surfboards and branding them Atlantis.
Surfing took him on adventures near and far where he met people from all walks of life. His compassionate nature has taught him more about human-to-human interaction than he ever would have learned in college had he stayed the course.
“I was going to Miami Dade and studying to become an architect,” Castlow said. “I was on track to be the in-house architect for my father’s construction company. I excelled, but I just wasn’t happy. When I told my father that I wanted to build surfboards for a living he encouraged me to follow my dream and I’ve never looked back.”
Castlow fondly remembers flying out to Hawaii with four surfboards and $500 to his name. He bought a station wagon for $200, loaded up and headed to Oahu’s North Shore where he surfed and built boards to support himself for a couple of years.
“The adventures in my life and the journey I’ve been on has exposed me to so many amazing things,” he said.
He moved to Fort Pierce in 1975, opened the surf shop Atlantis and quickly immersed himself in the surfing and boating culture. His work and innovation in the fiberglass industry put him in demand, successfully making, repairing, creating and improvising all sorts of solutions to all sorts of problems.
From there he morphed into building fishing boats and was co-owner of Maverick Boat Group. Those years spent building and selling in-shore craft gave him the knowledge and expertise to market shallow-water skiffs. Always an innovative thinker, Castlow initiated a shallow-water fishing expo at the dealership, designed to get customers through the door. He invited manufacturers of fishing gear, sunglasses and boating equipment to exhibit their products as a focal point for people to visit and ultimately look at the boats.
When his partner bought him out in the mid-’80s, Castlow and his wife took the expo on the road and yearly produced eight shows around the country. Through savvy marketing, Castlow expanded the show to about 175 vendors including local boat dealers and destinations, with their shows attracting up to 10,000 visitors.
“We kept true to our concept with the in-shore, light tackle fishing lifestyle,” he explained. “Our motto was no slicers, no dicers and bamboo steamers. We would rent out the entire Orange County Convention Center and fill it. We even partnered with Coastal Living Magazine and set up a village showcasing their advertisers in exchange for advertising in their national publication.”
The downturn in the market prompted the end of the touring expositions. He then started Dragonfly Boatworks in Vero Beach where he applied all of his prowess to building the best near-shore boats in the market with a worldwide customer base. Just as the business was taking off, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico happened and got Castlow all worked up.
“When I saw it on TV I was literally dumbfounded,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I sketched out ideas for a boat to rescue wildlife.”
Castlow emailed his friend, Jimbo Meador, who happened to be in the Bahamas fishing with their mutual friend, singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett, and the three teamed up to supply four custom vessels specifically designed to aid in the recovery of oil-covered wildlife along the marshes of the Gulf Coast.
“We called them SWAT boats,” he explained. “That stood for Shallow Water Attention Terminal. Our crew at Dragonfly finished the first 17-foot skiff from my original drawings and finished the product in just 28 days.”
The SWAT boats served as platforms for cleaning oil-soaked birds and drew just 9 or 10 inches when loaded. The bow mounted electric trolling motor let rescuers quietly approach wildlife.
“We were met with resistance all the way from the government and BP oil, but we did it. After a special segment on CNN’s AC360 news show with Anderson Cooper, donations poured in and solutions to our roadblocks were found. We all made our livings from the ocean and we needed to step up and help.”
These days Castlow and his 17 employees complete about 50 boats yearly. His passion for quality craftsmanship exudes in every step of the building process.
“A Dragonfly boat is coveted and we rarely see them resold,” he said. “Primarily because each one is made for the individual buyer and tailored to their specific wants and needs.”
His other passion is the environment and he is always one to help.
“The ocean has provided me a livelihood from day one and my entire life is based around the ocean and water. When a conservation group needs help, I’ve got to do it. It’s Mother Nature asking. I only hope the next generation will carry the torch and preserve our valuable waters.”
Occupation: Owner of Dragonfly Boatworks
Lives in: Vero Beach
Family: Married with one grown son
Education: Southwest High School in Miami and Miami Dade College
Hobbies: Surfing, boating, fly-fishing
What inspires you: “Seeing the quality product my people produce and knowing that it was my guys who did it. I am also always inspired by my wife and partner, Mary, who is the most compassionate person I’ve ever met.”
Something people don’t know about you: “I love helping people succeed and find human to human compassion one of my best assets.”