For a half-century a Rybovich has been as distinctive a sight on the Florida waterfront as any Ferrari or Rolls-Royce is on the highway. In the rarified world of serious sportfishing, a Rybovich was — and still is — the ultimate in functional luxury, a boat that fishes as beautifully as it photographs.
Like his Uncle Tommy a generation before him, Michael Rybovich also builds boats with mirror finishes, radiused corners and careful attention to detail. The 64-foot Lizzy Bee is hull No. 1 from Michael and his son Dusty, a newly minted naval architect at Michael Rybovich and Sons Boat Works of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. There’s no denying the pedigree; she is a Rybovich thoroughbred, with styling reminiscent of the original yard’s 1960s express but with a modern twist.
Just as Rybovich’s history-making mahogany-planked Miss Chevy II (circa 1947) and Miss Chevy IV (1952) wowed the fishing elite when they debuted as the world’s first raised-deck convertible sportfishing boats — with the first under-gunwale transom door, aluminum tuna tower and outriggers, and ball bearing fighting chair — Lizzy Bee has been creating her own buzz. The lines may be traditional, but the boat is anything but. For one, she’s a walkaround. And at 64 feet, she may be the world’s biggest. More important, she’s a superb platform for the type of light-tackle billfishing that owner Larry Wilson enjoys.
“When people talk about the benefits of a walkaround, they talk about being able to safely fight a fish from the bow to the stern,” Wilson explains. “That’s a plus, but for me it was more a matter of creating a boat that allows me to deploy the maximum number of baits. On a conventional sportfisherman with an 18-foot beam, you are limited to fishing baits from the stern. With the portable Murray Brothers rocket launchers and rod holders along the port and starboard gunwales, we can fish up to four kites, plus numerous deep to mid-depth baits from the stern to the bow.”
Lizzy Bee is the culmination of Wilson’s long appreciation for big-game boats, which began when he was a youngster growing up in Palm Beach Shores, Florida — five houses south of the legendary Bill’s Sailfish Marina. His fascination extended to what he calls the “ultimate” sportfisherman, a Rybovich. “After school I would scramble along the seawall to the Sailfish Marina to see what the boats caught,” says Wilson. “Eventually Capt. Lou Parkinson on the Charmer invited me out as an unpaid third mate.”
Among the high hooks then were Capt. Frank Ardine on Sail Ahoy, Capt. Bob Rast on Comanche and Capt. Jack Lance on the 37-foot Rybovich Suzie III. “That’s where my dream of building and owning my own Rybovich began,” says Wilson, who has owned six — two of them built at Rybovich and Sons after Tommy’s death in 1972 and four by the family’s third-generation builder, Michael, who is 59.
Michael is the first son of Emil, the youngest of the three Rybovich brothers. Michael grew up in a small house near the boatyard, at 4200 Dixie Highway. His Uncle Tommy, a decorated World War II pilot and the middle brother, was reclusive and shy. “He was notorious for his nonstop work ethic and perfectionism, refining and improving the Rybovich design,” Michael recalls. John, the oldest and one of the sport’s most influential conservationists, was the yard’s business manager and the only big-game fisherman of the brood. “Being an avid big-game fisherman, Uncle John spearheaded innovations such as the first ball bearing fighting chair with integrated footrest, the first aluminum tuna tower and outriggers, and the transom-mounted tuna door you see on every big-game boat.”
Emil, with his dry wit, was the most outgoing of the siblings. A mechanical and electrical whiz, he pioneered Rybovich’s white-glove service, which included flying repair crews to customers’ boats, wherever they were. “I would fly with him and the mechanic to the Bahamas on the yard’s Republic Seabee,” says Michael. “Dad was a terrific pilot. He also sea-trialed all the boats and, to his brothers’ chagrin, was blunt with his assessments.”
At the yard, it was a six-day workweek. “My brother Marty and I would spend our Saturdays at the boatyard, cleaning and picking up empty soda bottles. Maybe that’s why we did a lot of things before coming back to it. The problem was our timing was bad,” says Michael, referring to his father and Uncle John’s decision to sell Rybovich and Sons to automotive executive Bob Fisher in late 1975.
“They didn’t think we wanted to take it over,” says Marty, the purchasing agent for the recently opened Michael Rybovich and Sons in Palm Beach Gardens.
“Tommy had four girls with no interest in the yard,” says Michael. “My cousin John Jr. was continuing his education and working for IBM. I was studying math in Colorado, where Marty had other plans.”
Michael returned to Florida in 1975 and, needing a job, went to work at Rybovich and Sons, weeks before Fisher bought the yard. Only after he had worked his way up to carpenter did it dawn on him that boatbuilding could be more than a paycheck. “I couldn’t get enough of it,” he says.
In the meantime, it soon became obvious that Fisher had a different mindset about custom boatbuilding than the Ryboviches. “Being from the automotive industry, he was all about production,” says Michael. “Neither he nor others who owned the business fully understood the legacy associated with the Rybovich name. The business suffered as a result.”
When Michael started working at the yard, he scraped barnacles. “My father, who was still there, said I should learn from the keel up,” he says. Within a year he was on the new-hull crew, which he later supervised until a falling out with Fisher eight years later. Although he never worked under Tommy, Michael apprenticed with the master builder’s crew. “Guys like Jack Rhodes, Curt Wills, Jimmy Becker and Bill Jackman — the chief boatbuilder after Tommy — taught me the skills that allowed me to go out on my own,” he says. Rybovich and Sons, for the family, was a dead end. “The only way forward for me was to build boats on my own.”
In 1984, noted angler Nick Smith learned that Michael was starting a small yard — Rybovich International — on 28th Street in West Palm Beach and asked him to review drawings he’d made for a new style of fishing boat. At the time, Smith was fishing a 30-foot Daytona he’d built with Bobby Sherbert. “They’d cut the sheer on a flybridge boat, creating what’s since become known as the first walkaround,” Michael says. “Nick’s idea had been to put the bridge inside on the same level as the cockpit so he could fight a fish and maneuver the boat at the same time. He came to me because he wanted to build a bigger, faster boat.”
But Smith had his own ideas about hull shapes, which did not jibe with Emil’s concept for convex hull sections. This led to a parting of the ways, resulting in Smith hiring Bill Knowles to build his 36-foot walkaround. However, Smith’s idea for a 360-degree sportfisherman was so intriguing that Michael sought his blessing to build the 32-footer they’d designed for him. “Nick was the catalyst and deserves credit for the concept that put us on the map and in touch with Charlie Bouchard, who bought it to target giant tuna off Rhode Island in the summer and sailfish in the winter off Palm Beach,” says Michael.
Fuel economy, as much as fishing efficiency, had convinced Bouchard to take a chance on Michael’s boat. This high-profile fishing boat, named Ruthie — aboard which Bouchard caught and released more than 2,000 sails — led to a handful of commissions for Rybovich International — and trouble when a newspaper story about the boat came to the attention of Harvey Wilson, who had just bought Fisher’s yard. Emil’s quote that “only a Rybovich can build a real Rybovich” irked Wilson. He filed a lawsuit asserting copyright infringement over Rybovich International’s use of a double handrail and Ruthie’s broken sheer. The potentially costly suit was settled when Michael agreed not to use the family name in business. He and Marty renamed their business Ryco Marine (because Ryco followed Rybovich in the phone book).
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In the two decades since, Michael has won praise for the 20 boats he’s built — among them China Girl for Mickey Rupp, Castabar, Banderlog, Coral C, Game On, Lizzy Bee and Ruthie, now named Charmer. Nick Smith, who knew Michael’s uncles and father, says Michael is like an outgoing version of Tommy, “a perfectionist and artist just like [Tommy] was.”
Also taking note of Michael’s boats was Larry Wilson (no relation to Harvey), a software developer and entrepreneur who in 1998 came to the builder with an idea for a 43-foot walkaround. In the end, they decided its large size made the boat “too unconventional,” so they settled on a 39-foot express that Wilson named Charmer, paying homage to the boat he fished on as a boy.
Wilson admires Michael’s openness to ideas and his problem-solving skills and appreciates his dedication to “getting it right” — even if that means getting up at 5 a.m. to change out the screws on the teaser reel with anti-seizing screws so that 20 years down the road, when someone needs to replace it, the screws won’t be frozen. “That happened with the 39,” says Wilson.
The boat was launched in 2000, the year Emil died. Ryco was now operating from a waterfront site off 21st Street in Riviera Beach, where they might have stayed had Hurricane Wilma not made kindling of their building in 2005. Timing, as they say, is everything. The previous year, Wayne Huizenga Jr. purchased the original Rybovich yard on Dixie Highway and approached Michael about working for him. “He thought I might bring back the old mystique,” says Michael, referring to the company’s decades without a Rybovich at the helm. Flattered, he nonetheless said no. “Marty and I were doing OK,” he says. “We had three boats underway, then Wilma hit. With no building and anxious customers, it suddenly made economic sense [to work for Huizenga].”
Working for Huizenga, Michael completed five boats in five years before the Great Recession soured Huizenga’s appetite for custom boatbuilding. With his crew laid off, Rybovich decided he should move on. This time he left with permission to use the Rybovich name. One of the five boats he’d built during that time was a 54-footer for Wilson, who’d become a friend.
In 2011 they became business partners in an aging 2-acre boatyard off PGA Boulevard and Prosperity Farms Road in Palm Beach Gardens — the next generation of Michael Rybovich and Sons Boat Works. After a six-month facelift that included the addition of covered sheds, coats of sunny yellow paint and such Rybovichian details as an engineered railway that works as seamlessly as any 100-ton Travelift, it’s a smaller version of the family’s original yard, says Michael.
“In 3-1/2 years we’ve grown from five to 35 employees,” says Marty. With drills whining and sawdust flying, they’re lofting two boats, including an 86-footer, and servicing another half-dozen. And although last summer’s launch of the walkaround Lizzy Bee technically was Michael’s 20th, it’s hull No. 1 for the new yard. “It’s fitting, he says. “The first boat I built on my own, Ruthie, was a walkaround, which Larry bought and renamed. Our first boat as Michael Rybovich and Sons is a walkaround [for Larry]. Since that day in 1975 when dad told me the yard was sold, it’s been a long road with a lot of forks getting to this place. Yet with my son Dusty working with me, who by the way is the first Rybovich with formal training as a naval architect and engineer, we’ve started a new chapter of Rybovich and Sons. And it has a happy ending.”
A Ferrari is distinguished by its stallion logo and a Rolls-Royce by its double-R emblem, but a Rybovich has never worn a marque on its hull. As Michael’s father said: “True fishermen don’t need to look at a tag to tell what kind of boat it is” — especially if it’s a Rybovich.